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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Missing Rings: The 1995 Detroit Lions – Curse of Bobby Layne Extended

Okay, before we get started we have to share something with you…

While it’s widely known the Dallas Cowboys were the team of the 90’s, do you know who held a 3-1 record against them during the years 1991-1995??

When we use hyperbole in sports we always talk about a team as a sum greater than its parts. You find this to be true in all championship teams and in the near champions. When you look back its amazing how teams have seasons where all their stars have career years at the same time. Yet something happens to the psyche of a team when they come up short. All the parts are still there, things look the same, however they cant rekindle the feeling nor winning ways of that lost season.   Enter the 1995 Detroit Lions

Have you ever heard of “The Curse of Bobby Layne?” He was the last quarterback to lead the Lions to the NFL championship and he did it 3 times in the Fabulous ’50s. Once he was an aging & injured player, he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Steelers. On his way out, the embattled future Hall of Famer quipped “The Lions won’t win for 50 years!” Well that was 1958.

Over the next 4 decades the franchise mired in mediocrity due to the fact they fell short constantly at quarterback. Only once in 1971 did the Lions have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Greg Landry since Layne’s departure. From 1957-1990 Detroit didn’t muster a single playoff win. Their teams toiled in anonymity with very few players of distinction during many of those years.

However with the ’89 NFL draft the Lions drafted Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders. The greatest running back in NFL history. With such a breathtaking runner dominating the marquee, the Lions could hand the ball off and let Sanders break ankles as he routinely rushed for 100 yard games. Great for highlights not so much for winning as Detroit began 2-9 in his rookie season. Then Sanders exploded for 28 car 145 yds and another 45 yds receiving in a 13-10 Thanksgiving Day win over Cleveland. At the time the Browns were a perennial playoff team in the middle of 3 trips to the AFC Championship Game in a 4 year period. Propelled by that performance the Lions finished 7-9 with a 5 game winning streak.

To capitalize on their remarkable runner they needed to improve on journeyman QB Bob Gagliano and improve the quality of the roster. In 1989, Rodney Peete was a rookie QB on the team yet the Lions inexplicably followed his selection by drafting another in Andre Ware the following year. Desperate to develop a quarterback they also brought in Erik Kramer in 1991. Coach Wayne Fontes never settled on a QB and played the hot hand at the time. This retarded the growth of all 3 as the Lions staggered through a 6-10 1990 and began 1991 with a 6-4 record.

Benny Blades, from The [[_]] was a defensive force

The team rallied through tragedy as they played on and dedicated the rest of the season to G Mike Utley who had been paralyzed against the Rams. Offering the same “thumbs up” as Utley gave when he was taken from the field on a gurney, the team rallied winning their last 6 to finish 12-4. Winners of the NFC Central, they hosted the Wildcard Dallas Cowboys and destroyed them 38-6.

They fell in the 1991 NFC Championship 41-10 to the eventual champion Washington Redskins. The reality was they had overachieved on emotion and were short on personnel. Aside from the incomparable Sanders, only T Lomas Brown on the offensive side of the ball, made the Pro Bowl in ’90 and ’91. The defense had 3 Pro Bowlers in SS Bennie Blades (The [[_]]), LB Chris Spielman, and NT Jerry Ball.

Over the next few years management grew increasingly frustrated with Coach Fontes inability to groom a quarterback. Especially with the emergence of Brett Favre with the division rival Packers. With the signing of DE Reggie White at the advent of Free Agency in ’92, they had become the preeminent team in the NFC Central. For good measure Favre started his playoff run as a face of the future with a ’93 wildcard win over Detroit 28-24.

Management blew up the 3 QB rotation of Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer, and Andre Ware by releasing them. They signed Scott Mitchell to a 3 year $11 million contract after he had admirably filled in for an injured Dan Marino in Miami. He was tall (6’6) could see over the line and seemingly make all the throws… matched with emerging wideout Herman Moore and a reliable #2 in Brett Perriman with Sanders in the mix?? They could be something. All were under 30 and hitting their prime. They had some growing pains that first year with Mitchell however veteran backup Dave Krieg had been brought in and 94 saw another wildcard birth.

Detroit showed flashes as they began slowly (again) mustering a 3-6 record precipitating management issuing an ultimatum to Coach Fontes. Anything less than the playoffs was unacceptable. The underlying tone was Fontes would be fired if they didn’t make the posteason. Rather than turn the game to Sanders as they had in years past, they kept honing their new 3 receiver approach… As for Sanders:

The ink was already drying where most sportswriters mentioned Scott Mitchell on the list of biggest free agent busts: Not so fast guys!! In their 0-3 start, Detroit scored a total of 47 points. The team emerged from the ownership ultimatum a focused group that roared back winning their final 7 games. In doing so, the Lions averaged 32 points per game and finished with the league’s #1 offense. Had they kept that scoring rate up for the whole season they could have challenged the NFL record for points. They still made NFL history though.

Herman Moore and Brett Perriman became the first teammates in NFL history to record over 100 receptions in the same season. Moore broke the NFL all time receptions record in a season with 123 for 1,686 yards and 14 TDs. Perriman (the [[_]]) emerged with 108 grabs for 1,488 yards and 9 touchdowns. This was the only time in league history where 2 receivers from the same team went over 1,400 yards receiving in the same season. Even 3rd receiver Johnny Morton got into the act with 44 rec. 590 yards & 8 scores.

The video already let you know Sanders ran for 1,500 yards & 11 touchdowns on just 314 carries. His 4.7 yards per carry was tops in the league. Why the remarkable turn-around?? Scott Mitchell!!

In a career year Mitchell bound all this talent together with a 4,000 yard season & a team record 32 touchdowns and should have made the Pro Bowl. The only reason he didn’t make the Pro Bowl was he was Scott Mitchell and not Troy Aikman (who did in ’95)… all about reputation:

  • Scott Mitchell 346 of 583 4,338 yds 32 TDs 12 ints (2.6 TD to int. ratio)
  • Troy Aikman 280 of 342 3,342 yds 16 TDs 7 ints (2.2 TD to int.ratio)

What argument could be made?? Well Aikman and the Cowboys were a running team. Wait a minute…didn’t Barry run for 1,500?? This team was flying into the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. Mitchell had become the quarterback the franchise had been looking for since Bobby Layne. The curse had been lifted!! They had their eyes on those Dallas Cowboys who they believed they could beat. In 94′ they handed the back to back champion their first loss of the season 20-17 where Sanders blistered the #1 defense for 194 yards in Texas Stadium.

All they had to do was get through Philadelphia on Wildcard Weekend and they would travel to Dallas for the divisional round. There they could prove they were among the league’s elite.

With their eyes fixed on the Cowboys they forgot to close their mouth about the Eagles. In this case T Lomas Brown, who guaranteed a win in the Detroit newspapers which changed the temperament and the tone of the game. Right then “The Curse of Bobby Layne” and the ghosts of Detroit Lions past arose.

A raucous crowd awaited them in Philadelphia as the Lions were booed and taunted from the moment they got off the plane. Once inside the friendly confines of Veteran’s Stadium a fired up Philly defense attacked Scott Mitchell mercilessly. He was hit twice in the first drive and sacked by Mike Mamula. The Eagles taunted him and he disintegrated under the pressure. The cool confidence shown all season vanished as he threw 4 interceptions and was benched midway through the 3rd quarter. By then the score had swelled to 51-7 as a nationwide audience watched in disbelief.

How was this happening with an Eagle team with 1995’s 25th ranked offense?? The 4th ranked Philly defense did swarm Sanders holding him to 40 yards rushing but it was the curse. How else could you explain a team winning 58-37 after it had been outscored (318 for / 330 against) all season?? Remember when they gave up on the 3 quarterbacks and let go of Rodney Peete?? Well he just so happened to be playing for the Eagles…his 3rd team in 3 years.

In ’95 he was a backup and came in after Randall Cunningham had been benched and threw for 8 TDs v 14 interceptions. This is what plagued his Lions career. Well in this game he channeled his inner Bobby Layne and played flawless football. Going 17 of 25 for 270 yards 3 TDs and no picks. In fact with :02 left in the 1st half up 31-7, he completed a Hail Mary 43 yard pass to Rob Carpenter 38-7 at the half…ball game!!

No NFC playoff game from 1970 to this day has seen that many points…58?? Scott Mitchell the free agent savior with the #1 offense fell apart with 6 total interceptions while the QB they got rid of had a career game for the opponent?? The laughter of Bobby Layne’s ghost could be heard off in the distance.

That game was the turning point in Mitchell’s career as he never recovered. A poor ’96 where he threw for 17 TDs to 17 ints led to a 5-11 season as the offense plummeted to 20th and Head Coach Wayne Fontes was fired. Sanders rushed for 1,553 yards in 96 but they couldn’t rekindle the magic of their run the season before. The ’95 season was the statistical best as Mitchell, Herman Moore, and Brett Perriman all had the best year of their careers.

One month later they watched the Dallas Cowboys win their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years. In ’93 and ’94 they lost to Green Bay in the Wild Card just as they did to the Eagles in ’95. Each of those times they would have played Dallas in the playoffs and possibly altered football history. They had a 3-1 record over Dallas during those years and league wide respect beating them again in the playoffs was right there for the taking. However there is this curse lingering over this franchise…

By the way…still don’t believe in curses?? Guess what day present owner William Clay Ford’s bid was approved to buy the franchise?? Try November 22, 1963!! Folks I can’t make this stuff up!!

An aspect of not gaining closure on Sanders is the abandonment of the house he provided thrills in.

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Missing Rings: The 1980 Atlanta Falcons

After years of mediocrity you can have a team that rises from the depths and come within inches of joining the elite. Some even become more than contenders as the stars seem to align and the team matures into a once in a lifetime meteor. Back in the years before free agency in the NFL, most teams were built by implementing a 5 year plan. Down in the land of Dixie, one such would be champion was being groomed in Atlanta. Could Cinderella really break through and win that elusive Super Bowl before the clock struck midnight??

Wiliam Andrews ran with thunder.

Wiliam Andrews ran with thunder.

Borne out of expansion in 1966, the Atlanta Falcons became the 2nd NFL franchise to be started below the Mason Dixon line. Although the New Orleans Saints franchise would begin play a year later, it was just the Falcons and the Dallas Cowboys as most teams were platooned in the northeast U.S. Ironically the southeast had been a Washington Redskin television market in the years preceding the Falcons. However the Cowboys gained more fans as Tom Landry’s teams dominated in the late 60s and appeared in 5 Super Bowls in the 1970’s.

The Falcons struggled for years just to field a competitive team. Very few stars outside of LB Tommy Nobis, the franchise’s 1st ever draft pick, played with any distinction. It took the team nearly a decade to field their 1st 1,000 yard rusher in Dave Hampton. Even that was an odyssey as he fell less than 10 yards short of 1,000 in successive years before eclipsing the feat in 1975.

That same year Atlanta landed 1st overall pick in QB Steve Bartkowski out of Cal. Giving the offense credibility with the team’s 1st legitimate franchise signal caller.  However they had to throw him into the fire and play him as a rookie. The results were less than impressive as Bartkowski completed less than 50% of his passes while throwing 30 TDs to 55 interceptions over his first 4 years.

New Head Coach Leeman Bennett came in ’77 and brought with him Defensive Coordinator Jerry Glanville. With a young developing QB and a hodge podge set of runners, the Falcons through caution to the wind and employed a gambling blitzing scheme defensively.

Known as “The Gritz Blitz” they actually set the league record for fewest points in a 14 game season with 129 and finished ranked 2nd to the World Champion Cowboys. However with the NFL’s 25th ranked offense and 25th scoring offense, they could only muster 179 points to finish with a 7-7 record. They used this recipe to sneak into the ’78 playoffs where they nearly upset Dallas in the divisional playoffs. Once there they knocked out starting QB Roger Staubach and had Dallas on the ropes. Second string QB and team punter Danny White led the Cowboys to a 27-20 come from behind triumph over an incomplete team that had to get better.

One of the best passing combinations in 1980.

One of the best passing combinations in 1980.

Getting by on gimmicks wasn’t enough. If the Falcons were to compete for a championship they needed some blue chip talent ready for prime time play. For the ’77 and ’78 seasons they finished 25th and 26th on offense and only had DE Claude Humphrey, CB Rolland Lawrence and P John James as the lone Pro Bowl representation after the ’77 campaign. They were that anemic. Yet with a developing QB in Bartkowski going into his 5th year, he was to take a giant step forward in his maturation. So the Atlanta brass went looking for offensive firepower to surround him with in the 1979 draft.

Atlanta struck gold in the draft when they nabbed William Andrews and Lynn Cain in the 3rd and 4th rounds respectively. Cain was a solid halfback but it was the bruising Andrews that gave the offense an identity. He bludgeoned defenders rushing for 1,023 yards averaging 4.3 yards per carry in his rookie campaign. With defenses having to put 7 and 8 in the box to stop Andrews everything opened up.

In 1980 everything came together as Cain and Andrews nearly became the 3rd tandem in NFL history to each rush for 1,000 in the same season. Andrews had a career year with 1,308 yards and 4 TDs while Cain pitched in with 914 yards and 8 scores. Bartkowski came of age in 1980 throwing for more TDs than any quarterback in the NFL with 31 and 3,544 yards… both team records. Wideout Alfred Jenkins (1,035 yds / 6TDs) teamed with rookie TE Junior Miller (584 yds / 9TDs) to make the Pro Bowl as Bartkowski’s top downfield targets. Everyone of these players had the best season of their careers to this point with all but Cain making the Pro Bowl.

National pundits lauded the exploits of “Air Coryell” with the Chargers of the AFC however it could be argued this was a more complete offense. The Falcons finished 9th in passing, 5th in rushing, and ranked 3rd overall behind the Chargers and the Rams in offensive statistics. Who do you stop?? Where do you begin to defense an offense with nearly every skilled player worthy of Pro Bowl recognition?? Oh the other wideout?? Wallace Francis, who also nearly went for 1,000 yards with 862 yards and another 7 trips to the endzone.

Curry and the defense held their own in 1980.

Curry and the defense held their own in 1980.

Defensively the Falcons weren’t quite as effective in years past with the blitz yet fielded a decent defense with ILB Buddy Curry, OLBs Al Richardson (7 ints.) and Joel Williams leading the charge. Curry and Richardson were rookies where Williams was acquired in ’79 but didn’t hit the field until 1980. They finished in the middle of the pack in terms of defensive ranking yet were 5th in pts allowed with 272. Head coach Leeman Bennett’s team hurtled through the heavens finishing with a 12-4 record winning 9 of their last 10. For the 1st time in their history finished as the NFC Western Division Champs.

The entire season was a campaign battling for respect. As the playoffs beckoned they would get their chance facing the team that was always there to knock the Falcons back to also-ran status… the Dallas Cowboys.

However coming into this NFC Divisional Tilt the Cowboys would have to travel to Atlanta for the first time. While the Cowboys offense had broken numerous team records in their 1st season under Danny White, their defense had aged as the 70s drew to a close. They were still America’s Team but gone was “Hollywood” Henderson, Cliff Harris, Hall of Fame CB Mel Renfro, S Charlie Waters due to injury from the defense. The team that was #1 in 1977 and #2 in 1978 fell to 17th in 1980 overall and 17th against the pass going into the playoffs. Could the Cowboys keep pace with the high flying Atlanta offense?? Would the young Falcons be ready for primetime playoff football or would the moment be too great?? After all most of these players weren’t there in the 1978 playoff meltdown against Dallas but they were still young…would they be affected??

The Falcons scored 1st on a Tim Mazetti field goal then struck deep with a 60 yard bomb from Bartkowski to Alfred Jenkins to go up 10-0. Tom Landry’s charges weathered the storm and tied it up midway through the 2nd. However a closer look reveals Landry’s Flex Defense was controlling the game. They sacked Bartkowski 4 times and held the Falcons to 86 yards rushing for the game. This is a team that averaged 150.5 yards per game with 2 backs that almost had 1,000 yards each!! So when the Falcons went up 24-10 late in the 3rd and tried to lean on their running game to get them to the NFC Championship & couldn’t produce, they allowed Danny White to keep firing. Could they just get to the finish line…??

They couldn’t hold off the playoff pressure ready Cowboys who outscored them 20-3 in the 4th quarter to steal the game 30-27. White came of age completing 25 of 39 for 322 yards and 3 touchdowns. Danny White to Drew Pearson and Dallas knocked Atlanta back again. Well with the youngest team in the NFL lead by a franchise QB this was only the beginning  for Atlanta…right??

Would you believe they never returned to the playoffs after the 1980 playoff collapse?? They fell to 7-9 in 1981 as the San Francisco 49ers came out of nowhere to win the NFC West. Andrews rushed for 1,300 yards and Bartkowski threw for 30 touchdowns again but the defense totally broke allowing 355 points. Injuries and an inability to mesh complete seasons from Lynn Cain, Junior Miller and company led to Head Coach Leeman Bennett’s departure following the 1982 season.

They did make it to the 1982 playoffs when a strike shortened season allowed 8 teams per conference in a single elimination tournament. Atlanta went in with a 5-4 record and lost in Minnesota 30-24… is that really making the playoffs?? Their once great offense slipped to 14th in scoring and led to Dan Henning being hired from the Air Coryell coaching tree in 1983. Yet they looked up in the division to the San Francisco 49ers the rest of the decade just as they had the Los Angeles Rams in the 70’s.

For one brief moment in 1980 it all came together and they let it slip away.

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Missing Rings: 1979 Houston Oilers – Luv Ya’ Blue

When the gun sounded to end Super Bowl L, much of the attention turned to Peyton Manning and his upcoming decision to continue playing or retire.  Pundits waxed philosophical on where Denver’s defensive performance placed them in history and Manning’s overall legacy. However a small contingent thought of Wade Phillips and the culmination of another legacy. That of the coaching family he hailed from and his father…the late Bum Phillips.

Coach Phillips and Eddie Biles giving instruction to standout linebacker Robert Brazile.

Coach Phillips and Eddie Biles giving instruction to standout linebacker Robert Brazile.

It’s a rich legacy with Bum Phillips and the late 70’s Houston Oilers. Where a father gave a young Wade his first NFL job in 1976 coaching the defensive line. Bum had arrived the year before to resurrect a moribund franchise that hadn’t made the postseason in nearly a decade. Aside from back to back AFL championships in 1960 & ’61, the team mired in mediocrity without any players of distinction.

In an era where most NFL coaches were still emulating the status quo fire and brimstone approach of a Vince Lombardi or a Don Shula, Phillips was more of a player’s coach. Opting for reasoning and taking more of a personable approach, Bum got to know his players and was known for having laid back practices.

Phillips was one of the first to employ the 3-4 defense as a full time tactic which the Miami Dolphins had made famous during their Super Bowl years in the early 70’s. Shula and Bill Arnsparger used the defense part time to maintain an edge when they were ahead. It was actually a variation of the old Oklahoma 5-2 of the 1950’s however the defensive ends were replaced with quicker outside linebackers.

To make it lethal the Oilers drafted Robert Brazile to man the weakside linebacker spot. He was a 5 time all pro between 1976 and 1980 along with his defensive rookie of the year award. He was the prototype size and speed of the 3-4 outside linebacker the Giants made famous 5 years later with Lawrence Taylor. He was the focal point to a defense that led the Oilers to a 10-4 record in ’75 where they narrowly missed the playoffs.

In ’75 QB Dan Pastorini and WR Ken Burrough each made the Pro Bowl. However over the next two years the offense bogged down without a serious running threat. They struck gold in 1978 when they drafted Heisman Award winning running back Earl Campbell out of Texas. Now they had a focal point on the offensive side of the ball. A one man wrecking ball that punished defenses while toting the rock 30 times a game. 

dan_pastorini_drew_brees_nflpa_08302011Having to look up in the AFC Central standings to the perennial champion Steelers, the Oilers seemed to be ready to make their move. They finished 2 games behind the Steelers in ’77, yet it looked like Pittsburgh had come back to the pack having failed to reach the AFC Championship for the first time in 4 years.

The NFL was abuzz with the exploits of Campbell, who was leading the league in rushing, and the state of Texas seemed to be gravitating to this new team on the block. Midway through the ’78 campaign, winners in 4 of their last 5 including a 24-17 win in Pittsburgh, the Oilers played their signature game of the era. A Monday Night match-up with Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins.

This Monday Night matchup would become the showcase where the Oilers proved they belonged among the NFL’s elite. Also it would solidify Earl Campbell’s chances to win rookie of the year honors. After all he came into this week 12 contest with 944 yards rushing.

In one of the transcendent games of the ’70’s the Oilers prevailed 35-30. Campbell became the first rookie to lead the NFL in rushing (1,450 yds) since Jim Brown in 1957. The Oilers finished 10-6 to make the playoffs as a wild card. There they beat the Dolphins in Miami 13-7 and beat New England 31-14 to make it to the AFC Championship Game. There they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers 34-5 who taught them how far they had yet to go.

Yet make no mistake… with the strides they made in 1978 it looked like ’79 would be their year.

The verve and spirit were still there the following season yet this team had the weight of expectation upon them. Campbell again led the league in rushing with 1,697 yards and 19 TDs. They stood toe to toe and slugged it out with the Steelers for supremacy of the AFC Central and wrested control with a 20-17 win in week 15. However a loss in the final week gave the Steelers (12-4) the division and the Oilers would have to go in as a wildcard at 11-5.

A shadow of doubt crept in as the Oilers were right back where they had been the season before. Except this time they would have to play the AFC Divisional against the high flying San Diego Chargers. In the wild card round they lost QB Pastorini, Campbell, and WR Burrough. Without their top passer, rusher and receiver they had to face the #5 defense to go along with San Diego’s #1 offense on the road. What would happen??

In The Chancellor of Football’s estimation, Oiler Safety Vernon Perry turned in the greatest defensive performance in NFL history. Perry wound up making 8 tackles while grabbing a playoff record 4 interceptions and blocking a field goal returning it 57 yards. The Oilers needed every one of these plays to escape with a 17-14 upset. One of the biggest in NFL playoff history.

Surprise! The Oilers would be headed to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship for the 2nd straight year. Unlike the ’78 game where the Oilers were overwhelmed playing in their 1st championship game, this one they were embroiled in a dog fight. With the Steelers up 17-10 and the Oilers driving late in the 3rd quarter, Dan Pastorini lofted a pass for Mike Renfro when…

Sentiment finally came full circle when the refs admitted to the blown call in private but the company line was towed publicly. On that day, a young Chancellor learned about momentum and why the ’79 Championship was tainted by the referee’s blown non call. The officials weren’t allowed to view instant replay in the stadium where we at home clearly saw Mike Renfro in. It lead to a rule change when six years later instant replay was instituted in the NFL.

However that was too late for the Oilers who fell 27-13 that day in which they were clearly cheated. It cast a pall on a day when it seemed as though the game wasn’t settled on the field.

To make that call even more painful, the Oilers never threatened for a Super Bowl again. The following season saw the Oilers deal away starting QB Dan Pastorini for the late Kenny Stabler in an attempt to “kick it in.” This was the adopted slogan for the 1980 season to finally kick the championship door open and make it to the Super Bowl.

Ironically it was Pastorini who won a Super Bowl ring as an injured member of the ’80 Oakland Raiders. In a twist of fate, their first postseason step was a 27-7 win over Stabler and the Oilers in the wildcard round.

It was the last hurrah as 3 losing seasons followed. Bum Phillips had been dismissed in the aftermath of the ’80 Wild Card loss to Oakland. The magic was gone and an era of “Luv ya’ blue” faded into lore. An improbable team with the unlikeliest of characters is still revered in a city where the Oilers left to become the Tennessee Titans, and a new Houston team occupies the city. However the heart of the city of Houston will forever remain with that team of the late 70’s.

“Luv ya’ blue” a legacy indeed…

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Missing Rings – 2004 Philadelphia Eagles

When you look back at seasons past, many of the NFL champions had a feeling of inevitability to them. You can remember the greatest of champions putting their stamp on the season as they started to separate from other contenders. The inadequacies that kept them from winning it all before, had seemingly been swept away. Yet when that team runs into a brick wall on the way to what was supposed to be their championship. It becomes the expiration date on their being a legitimate  contender and you’re left with…what if??? Enter the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles.

McNabb to Owens made the 2004 Eagles.

McNabb to Owens made the 2004 Eagles.

Head Coach Andy Reid was hired in ’99 from the Green Bay Packers and the Mike Holmgren coaching tree. As Quarterback Coach he oversaw Brett Favre as he accumulated 3 straight NFL MVP trophies, 2 Super Bowl visits, and 1 championship in their final 3 seasons together. By drafting McNabb in year 1 for Reid to develop, the future looked bright.

As the 2000’s began, your Philadelphia Eagles were developing a young Donovan McNabb at quarterback. He was the shining member of the quarterback class of 1999, and he had become a dynamic play maker in Head Coach Andy Reid’s “West Coast Offense”.  Although he was developing as a passer, he would take off on serpentine runs when plays broke down. They ran the ball by committee at RB and relied on a gambling blitzing defense run by the late Jim Johnson.

McNabb eludes Michael Strahan in the 2000 divisional playoff.

McNabb eludes Michael Strahan in the 2000 divisional playoff.

Philadelphia became a wildcard entrant in 2000, where they gained confidence with a 21-3 hammering of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The following week they lost a 20-10 slugfest in the divisional round v the Giants. New York went on to play in Super Bowl XXXV and did so based on 3 wins over Philly. So the die was cast, a little improvement and the Eagles could play in the Super Bowl.

No one knew beginning with the 2001 NFC Championship a new odyssey would begin. Three consecutive losses in the championship game left the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia mired in despair. They lost a tough game in ’01 to The Greatest Show on Turf St Louis Rams 29-24, although they were underdogs on the road.  This was nothing compared to what happened next.

The 2002 NFC Championship had the Eagles hosting in the last game ever in Veterans Stadium.  A title starved city was raucous in anticipation as the Buccaneers were making the trip to The City of Brotherly Love for a 3rd consecutive postseason. The ’00 Wildcard win established the Eagles as the up and coming team in the NFC and not the Bucs. The ’01 Wildcard solidified the notion and Tampa fired Head Coach Tony Dungy.

Ronde Barber sails 95 yards with the game clinching touchdown.

Ronde Barber sails 95 yards with the game clinching touchdown.

The Eagles were planning an NFC Championship coronation with an outdoor trophy presentation. The field was surrounded by police mounted on horseback. One small problem…the Bucs won the game 27-10 thanks to new Coach Jon Gruden’s offense.  Tampa was motivated by those previous playoff losses. They went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII 48-21 over Oakland.

After another NFC Championship flame-out against Carolina in ’03, and it appeared the Eagles had let their championship window close.

Speculation rained down over the organization. Had the Eagles put enough offensive talent around McNabb to become a champion?? Rush Limbaugh was fired by ESPN over comments “the NFL was desirous of a black quarterback doing well.”  Donovan McNabb had thrown for 1 TD & 5 interceptions in the 3 NFC Title losses. Was McNabb given a pass for his poor performances?? Everyone had an opinion…until

Jevon Kearse was one of the league's best quarterback trackers.

Jevon Kearse was one of the league’s best quarterback trackers.

The front office struck a blow in Free agency when they signed DE Jevon Kearse then traded for WR Terrell Owens. These were the two big fish available in the 2004 off-season and Philly nabbed them both. Gone was the attitude the Eagles didn’t need to sign blue chip talent to make it to the Super Bowl. It was all or nothing for 2004.

A perennial top 10 defense returned to form after sliding to 20th in the 2003 season. With Kearse (7.5 sacks) the Eagles returned to form as they garnered 45 sacks and 17 ints in 2014. Up from 35 sacks and 13 picks the season before. Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson didn’t blitz as often with a dominant presence like Kearse in the lineup.

McNabb, now with the league’s best receiver in T.O., had the best season of his career. In his previous 3 complete seasons he averaged 57% completion rate, 3,272 yards, 22 TDs and 11 interceptions. In ’04 he completed 64% of his passes for 3,758 yards, 31 touchdowns to just 8 picks. He set several club records and Owens was on his way to when he suffered a fractured ankle in week 15 after a dirty horse collar tackle by Roy Williams in a 12-7 win over Dallas.

Before that Owens, and his endzone antics, had shredded the league with 77 receptions for 1,200 yards and 14 scores. He had made a pact with Coach Reid to score 15 TDs and if he did so Reid would have to don a pair of tights. Damn he came close but the real story became what would the 13-3 Eagles do in the upcoming playoffs without their #1 playmaker??

They would have to rely on the receivers from previous years who weren’t thought of as making enough plays to get the Eagles over the top.  Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston, and Greg Lewis. It was Mitchell who scored twice in the 24-14 NFC Divisional playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings. Running back Brian Westbrook (1,515 yards from scrimmage) would be relied upon heavily. Although there was speculation T.O. might make it back if the team made it to the Super Bowl. To do so they would have to make it past their albatross… the NFC Championship Game.

Leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX, the lead story had been would Terrell Owens play in the title games. With several surgical screws in his ankle, and after signing an injury waiver, he was available on center stage.

The Eagles 24-21 loss was a valiant effort. Just 6 weeks after fracturing his ankle, Terrell Owens 9 rec for 122 yards was a sight to behold. They were beaten by the defending champion New England Patriots who were just a step better. McNabb had thrown for over 300 yards but had 3 costly interceptions that were the difference in a close, close Super Bowl. The Eagles were primed to make it back to the big dance in ’05.

However the expiration date had come and gone on the Eagles as a personality conflict between T.O. and Donovan McNabb tore at the fabric of the team. Owens would eventually be released for conduct detrimental to the team. After a 3-1 start, the ’05 Eagles fell to a 6-10 record which included a 42-0 road loss to the eventual NFC Champion Seahawks. . The run was over.

Andy Reid coached on through the 2012 campaign with several playoff seasons but none where the Eagles were considered elite. McNabb played on through 2009 before leaving for Washington. He was replaced by Michael Vick, the quarterback he beat for the 2004 NFC Championship.

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Missing Rings: The 1986 Seattle Seahawks

Now that the ink is drying in the record book for the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, it’s interesting to look at the team’s overall history. When we travel down the road to yesteryear, our remembrance of great teams that should have won the Super Bowl are normally teams that appeared in it. Yet if we returned to the last week of the season of 1986, you’d be surprised to learn the team that scared everyone going into the playoffs that year was the Seattle Seahawks.

The real Curt Warner was the first real super star in the history of the Seahawks.

The real Curt Warner was the first super star in the history of the Seahawks.

I know what you’re thinking. How could one of the best teams in Seahawk history be better than a team that appeared in the Super Bowl?? Well for starters the squad that made it to Super Bowl XL survived a fairly weak NFC playoff pool. Even the NFC Championship win had them best the Carolina Panthers who were starting a 4th string running back.

The team was born out of the expansion draft in 1976 along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They struggled mightily early on until a couple drafts in the early 80s brought superstars to the Pacific Northwest. In 1981 they drafted 3 time All American Safety Kenny Easley to fortify the defense. Two years later they brought in RB Curt Warner to bring juice to the offense. Where the bulk of media attention was on the class of ’83 quarterbacks, the real Curt Warner had a great rookie season with 1,449 yards rushing and 13 TDs.

They made their first foray into the NFL playoffs where they ended John Elway’s rookie season with a 31-7 win under the artificial sky of the Kingdome. Where it was thought this was as far as they could go, they went on to a huge upset over Don Shula’s Dolphins on the road 27-20. The Seahawks found themselves just one game away from Super Bowl XVIII and a trip to Los Angeles beckoned. They had swept the 12-4 Raiders during the regular season and were playing in their first championship in team history. One more win and the cinderella Seahawks would play for it all down in Tampa.

Another big time defender Seattle had was Jacob Green

Another big time defender Seattle had was Jacob Green

In the AFC Championship, Marcus Allen came of age rushing for 154 yards while snagging passes for 62 more as the Raiders prevailed 34-14. It seemed the Seahawks had turned the corner, yet the team was unable to put together a championship run in 1984 when Warner was lost for the season. They were bound together by their defense but the lack of offensive firepower came back to haunt them in a 31-14 playoff loss to the Dolphins.

Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largeant was the steady star who was a perennial 1,000 yard receiver.

Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largeant was the steady star who was a perennial 1,000 yard receiver.

They followed that with an 8-8 record in 1985 as they eased Warner back after a knee reconstruction. He did make it past 1,000 yards but it was Dave Krieg who came of age. He made the Pro Bowl in ’84 after throwing a team record 32 touchdowns, yet tossed 24 interceptions. He reduced his picks to 20 in 1985 in his second full season as a starter.

After back to back campaigns with over 3,600 yards passing from Krieg, Warner’s knee gaining full strength, and returning with the NFL’s 11th ranked defense featuring the 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the year in Kenny Easley…1986 looked like it would be the Seahawk’s year.

From the outset of 1986, Seattle was on a mission. They opened with a rousing 30-0 win over Pittsburgh. They made it to 2-0 before having to take on the defending AFC Champion Patriots on the road. Down 31-21 with less than 8 minutes to go, the Seahawks turned it on scoring 17 points including a blocked kick to stun the Patriots 38-31. Despite the fact Tony Eason passed for 414 yards and 3 TDs, Seattle showed how strong they could turn it on offense, defense, and special teams to win against a quality opponent.

At no time was this more evident than when they took on the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants  in week 7. The Seahawk defense took over and sacked Phil Simms 7 times while intercepting 3 of his passes. Jacob Green had the best game of his career as he registered 4 sacks. He did this against T Brad Benson, who 8 weeks later, became the first offensive lineman ever named NFC Offensive Player of the week for his performance against Dexter Manley. On this day in the Kingdome however, they couldn’t slide the line or help Benson as the Seahaks won a slugfest 17-12.

At 5-2 the Seahawks had proven to win every type of game against the stiffest of competition. This is the mark of a champion. The only opponent they couldn’t overcome was themselves. Following the win in New York, they lost a marquee game against Denver for the AFC West divsion lead 20-13. What was painful is they had two touchdowns in that game called back. They lost their mojo and went on a four game tailspin and fell out of contention.

The one constant that kept the season from turning sour in 1986: Curt Warner

After a team meeting, the Seahawks went on a tear as they finished with a five game winning streak. Curt Warner was the lead horse as he ran for 556 yards on 110 carries with 6 touchdowns over that time. The assault started with 122 yards in a 31-14 win in Dallas on Thanksgiving. He scored twice as he tallied 116 yards in a 37-0 Monday Night massacre against the division rival LA Raiders. Which set up the final game of the season where he saved his best performance for last.

Before we go there we have to mention the defense raising their level of play. During the 4 game losing streak, the defense had broken allowing an average of 451 yards / 29.75 points per game and only logged 5 sacks. Over the last five weeks the defense improved dramatically. They only surrendered 272 yards and only 10 points per game. The #1 and #2 defense in Chicago  and New York gave up 258 and 297 yds per game respectively. In the Monday Night 37-0 win against the Raiders, they registered a team record 11 sacks.

This five game streak included a match-up with the eventual AFC Champion and Division Champion Denver Broncos, in the regular season finale.

That rousing 41-16 win was the culmination of the team finally firing on all cylinders. NFL playoff tie-breakers kept the 10-6 Seahawks out. Yet for the first time in the Super Bowl era, one team beat both Super Bowl participants during the season. The Giants last loss was a 17-12 defeat up in the Kingdome in week 7. Then the finale blowout of the Broncos.

To this day, the Dave Krieg to Steve Largent connection remains the best in team history.

To this day, the Dave Krieg to Steve Largent connection remains the best in team history.

No one wanted to face this team as the ’86 playoffs were being set up. You had Curt Warner’s conference leading 1,481 yards and 13 touchdowns. Fellow Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer Steve Largent’s 70 receptions for 1,070 yards and 9 TDs. The league’s  best kick returner in Bobby Joe Edmunds. Emerging star in Pro Bowl linebacker Fredd Young and a now healthy quarterback in Dave Krieg (60% completion rate/ 21TDs – 11 ints). They had to sit and watch a knock kneed New York Jet team become the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after losing their last five games.

This is a cautionary tale as to why you have to win every game. During their 4 game losing streak they lost to those Jets 38-7. Cautionary?? This easily could have been your Super Bowl XXI champion. They finished 8th in offense and their defense was 8th in points allowed. They were jelling as the playoffs neared and in 1986 they played the league’s toughest schedule. They faced 3 of the 4 teams that made the conference title games that year.

In that regular season loss to the Jets, they may have left their ring on the table.

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