The Pottsville Maroons: A Forgotten Icon

History has a way of forgetting things if people don’t remain vigilant. On a Monday Night Football game in the 2004 season Al Michaels and John Madden were shown a caption depicting the three teams in NFL history to have given up the most safeties in a season. Top of the list was the Pottsville Maroons. At that point neither Madden nor Michaels had the slightest idea who the Maroons were – and neither did most of the football world – but by the end of the broadcast, they had managed to show a map of the US labelling Pottsville, and to run off a little bit of information about the former juggernaut team of the 20s. Within an hour of the game, the pottsvillemaroons.com website had collapsed due to the volume of traffic it received.

Now the story of the Pottsville Maroons and their stolen 1925 Championship is known by more people, but still not enough, so here’s a little refresher course.

As far as most football fans are concerned, the only things to have come out of the 1920s NFL were Red Grange, George Halas, and the Green Bay Packers, everything else just gets lost in a blur of black and white grainy video and odd looking footage. That decade left the NFL so much more however, but now the NFL has forgotten its pioneers. Not just men who endured pain unimaginable to players today, men who were treated for any injury with fingers of whiskey, who were fighting just to stay out of the death sentence that was the coal mines in the 1920s, but also teams and accomplishments that made the NFL what it is today.

The Pottsville Maroons are a forgotten icon, a team from the anthracite leagues that took on the NFL and won, and in doing so became the most dominant team ever assembled. After blitzing the NFL, the Maroons took on the invincible Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and a College All Star team, and emerged victorious, giving the NFL legitimacy that it had never had before. This is a team that earned the right to be remembered, and recognised for what it achieved.

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So why did such a great team, one that the Galloping Ghost himself deemed the greatest the game had ever known, pass into football obscurity?

They got screwed, that’s how.

In 1925, the Maroons entered the NFL on the back of a 1924 season spent dominating the Anthracite League, and with a roster full of new talent. They began to dominate the NFL in the same way, annihilating their first 7 opponents by a combined score of 179-6, eventually compiling a 10-2 record by the season’s end, including a 21-7 victory over the Chicago Cardinals, in what was viewed as the Championship game. Fresh from their success, they challenged the legendary Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, and won.  In that era the professional game was seen as the poor little sibling to college football, and most experts believed that the professional players that could beat Notre Dame had not yet been born.

Pottsville was then suspended and stripped of its NFL Championship for violating the territory of another team during the Notre Dame game.

Pottsville MaroonsThe game against the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, and their assembled college all-star side was termed the ‘Greatest Football Game Ever Seen’, and the victory gave the NFL a respect and legitimacy that it was never able to achieve before the Maroons came along. The professional game had long been seen as an exercise in ‘paid punting’, and it wasn’t until the Maroons showed up in 1925 with an expansive, balanced, offense that people really began to pay any attention to it. The Maroons had dashed the idea that the college game was superior to the pros, pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sporting history, and started the NFL on its journey to become America’s game. And how did the league repay them? By suspending them and taking away their title. “They won the championship in 1925 but were robbed of the honour by some misguided judgement,” said Red Grange years later.

3301106-1The Pottsville Maroons weren’t just dominant in 1925, they were innovators too. They were the first team to insist that players lived in the town during the season, so that they could attend regular practices, and so could develop a bigger and more diverse playbook. While the Maroons were doing this, the rest of the league’s players would travel for miles to meet up with their teams on game day and just ad-lib things as they went. They were also one of the first teams to fully exploit the forward pass, as well as the first to develop what we now know as the screen pass. While the rest of the league was executing the same line plunge every play, the Maroons were attacking people through the air, and racking up the scores. In 1925 alone the Maroons outscored their opponents by a combined figure of 333-52. In their 12 games in the 1925 NFL season, the Maroons only conceded points in 6 of them, and only conceded more than 7 points on just 1 occasion, their loss to Frankford, which they later avenged with a 49-0 trampling. By the start of week 5, the Maroons had yet to allow a single rushing first down!

This wasn’t just a good team, this was a team known as “the perfect football machine”.

There was no Super Bowl back in the 1920s, or even a playoff structure. Rather the NFL Champions came from essentially league play. When the Maroons crushed the Chicago Cardinals 21-6 late in the season, the national press hailed the Maroons as Champions, as did the town of Pottsville itself. As far as everybody was concerned, the NFL Championship had been decided in emphatic fashion by the Maroons victory. When the Maroons took on the Four Horsemen though their bitter local rivals, the Frankfort Yellowjackets, saw a chance to screw over Pottsville. They complained to the NFL commissioner, Joe Carr, that the game had violated their territory. Joe Carr himself was not a fan of the Maroons, having had previous altercations with their owner, Doc Striegel, and upheld the complaint. This all happened before the game itself, but Striegel had received permission from acting commissioner Jerry Corcoran via telephone before signing the contract to play the Four Horsemen, and so refused to back out of the game, and the check that would keep the team solvent.PottsvilleMaroonsTrophy

Since he had received permission when he signed the contract, Striegel wanted the NFL to guarantee his cut of the contract if he pulled out, and when that guarantee wasn’t forthcoming, he decided to play the game. The NFL was never able to provide written evidence of the rule that the Maroons supposedly broke, and if the guilt was debatable, the punishment itself was disproportionate and draconian.

When the New England Patriots were found guilty of breaking an NFL rule in the Spygate saga – and gaining a competitive advantage by doing so – they were fined, and docked a draft pick. The Maroons were found guilty of simply playing a game in another team’s territory – a game that actually brought national publicity to the struggling league, catapulting their national profile ahead – and they were suspended as a franchise and stripped of their Championship.

Not only that, but in order to demote them in the league standings, it was arranged for the Chicago Cardinals to play 2 quick games against disbanded teams before the official end of the NFL season. The league actually went out of its way to rig the end of the season just to shaft the team and ensure they wouldn’t win the league they just dominated.

So hastily arranged were these games, that the two teams were unable to field full sides, let alone full-strength sides, and actually resorted to fielding High School kids – also against the NFL rules. When that news broke, the offending parties were all issued fines, and one of the games being stricken from the record, but nobody was banished from the league and no iron fist came slamming down. The Cardinals and Maroons finished the season tied in record, but because the Maroons had been suspended from the league, they were not eligible to be named Champion. Thus the same Chicago Cardinals that had only weeks ago been trounced by the Maroons, were given the title of NFL Champions.

Such was the injustice of the chain of events, the Chicago Cardinals to their credit refused to accept the Championship, saying that they could not accept a title that had not been won fairly on the field of play. John ‘Blood’ McNally, legendary Packers player and Hall of Famer, agreed with the stance saying “Championships are won on the field and Pottsville won it there in 1925.  The Cardinals were defeated in an honest contest by Pottsville and should not claim a championship they did not win.  I support the Maroons as the true champs of 1925.” After the fact, even commissioner Carr softened his stance on the issue, realising that the punishment for the Maroons for playing an exhibition game that brought great publicity to the league should not outweigh the punishment the Cardinals received for manipulating the standings by playing games against High School kids. Since the Cardinals would not accept the 1925 Championship, it was never officially awarded to anybody, and has remained removed from its true home of Pottsville for over 80 years. When the Cardinals were bought by Charles Bidwell in 1933, he claimed ownership of the stolen championship, kicking off what many claim to be a curse on the franchise ever since.

lfThe NFL in 1925 was a league struggling just to maintain a foothold on the cliff, and as such it came down on the Maroons far too harshly, trying to maintain its authority, and crack down on teams that were harming the league. It is now almost 90 years later, and everybody can see this for what it is – bullshit – yet nobody will admit their mistake, and restore the 1925 Championship to the town that earned it on the field, and assembled one of the greatest teams ever to step on the gridiron. The NFL last addressed the issue as recently as 2003, but the league voted 30-2 to let sleeping dogs lie and maintain the injustice as long as it remained buried in the past. The smallest town in the NFL at the time won a league championship in their first year of trying, and were robbed by politics. Even if the NFL will never recognise the Pottsville Maroons as the 1925 champions, I think it’s worth tipping our hats to the 1925 NFL Champions, and a team of revolutionary pioneers that deserve rememberence.


For more on the Pottsville Maroons check out David Fleming’s book here !

Barry Sanders – Better Than You Remember

Barry Sanders is the greatest running back ever to play professional football. That’s it said, done, over.

The rest of this is going to be dedicated to showing why. All too often we get caught up in the conversation regarding who is the greatest and we settle on a committee compromise of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, a trio, designed to appease everybody and give an answer without actually committing to an informed decision.

As time passes and people’s memories haze, we’re even seeing Emmitt Smith start to enter into the conversation as his all-time rushing total acts as an all-too easy way of making his case. 27270_335537679180_1421693_n

Well this is different, we’re not going to water down the truth, Barry Sanders is the greatest running back ever to play, and he’s better than the other members of that committee.

The first thing to do is a little Barry Sanders 101. Barry Sanders grew up in Wichita Kansas, and began to develop the skills and unique running style that would become his trademark (literally). He did this by playing a game with his older brothers where the ball carrier had to make it from one end of the field to the other without being tackled. He made up for his lack of size by being simply impossible to catch.

During his senior season at North High School in Wichita, Sanders averaged a whopping 10.2 yards per carry. He was only 33 yards shy of the league rushing title when Coach Dale Burkholder, having pulled his starters, called Barry over and asked him if he wanted to stay in the game to get enough yards for the title. Barry Sanders told him without hesitation to “let the young kids play, coach”. This would be a theme throughout his career. Barry wasn’t a guy who went after the stats, he did what he could in order to win, but he didn’t care about the records, as Detroit Lions fans would first discover in 1989 and finally in 1999.

00barryDespite this great season in High School, Sanders wasn’t heavily recruited, and settled on Oklahoma St, when his beloved Oklahoma Sooners never showed an interest. He began his career as a Cowboy in the shadow of Heisman candidate and now Hall of Fame RB, Thurman Thomas. Even as the backup and kick returner, people could see the talent that he had. Whilst preparing to play OSU, Coach Barry Switzer famously saw enough of Sanders whilst watching game film to say to his coaching staff, “Guys, we’ve got a problem. You’d better hope that Thurman Thomas doesn’t get hurt. You don’t want to play against this freshman named Barry Sanders!” Despite his coaching staff looking at him like he was crazy, Switzer would be proved correct the next year. After Thomas left for the NFL, Sanders assumed the starting position, and set about re-writing the NCAA record books. In his 1988 junior season, Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards, scored 39 TDs, and set or tied 34 NCAA records in just 11 games. It was the greatest single season a college RB has ever had, arguably the greatest college season period, and it earned him the Heisman trophy.

Barry Sanders declared for the draft after that season, and held out after being drafted, eventually signing only 4 days before their first regular season game. Despite only 1 day of non-padded practice, and having rehearsed only one running play in the pre-game warm-ups, Sanders was eventually put in the game in the 3rd Quarter. On his first run from scrimmage Sanders reversed the field, and ran for 19 yards. Running a variation of just that one play, Sanders finished the day with 71 rushing yards and a TD on just 9 carries.

Barry Sanders went on to break the rookie rushing record set by fellow Lion, and fellow #20, Billy Simms. By the end of that season, he finished only 11 yards short of the league lead (having again turned down the opportunity to stay in the game to take the title from Christian Okoye), was named All-Pro, earned NFL Rookie of the Year Honours and was selected to the Pro-Bowl. Sanders was well on his way to the mesmerising figure that would baffle NFL players and coaches for his entire career. During his 5th game as a pro, Sanders gained 99 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, and made so many would-be tacklers miss that Vikings Head Coach, Jerry Burns, actually asked the officials to check his jersey – to ensure it hadn’t been sprayed with silicon so it couldn’t be grabbed.

Sanders was to be at the centre of a young team in Detroit, which Head Coach Wayne barryFontes hoped would restore the roar to the Silverdome. Things seemed to be going to plan as the Lions and Sanders found themselves in the 1991 NFC Championship game, having gone 12-4 during the regular season, and had 7 players selected to play in the Pro-Bowl.

In their first playoff game the young Lions team dismantled another young NFC team – the Dallas Cowboys – 38-6. This was the Dallas team that would go on to form a dynasty in the NFL, and that playoff game shows how far the Lions could have gone but for the want of some quality management. According to Lomas Brown, Offensive Tackle for the Detroit Lions at the time, the General Manager, Chuck Schmidt “didn’t like when players tried to use their power. He felt threatened. That’s why management ended up getting rid of so many guys on the team – Mel Gray, Bennie Blades, Jerry Ball, Chris Spielman, Brett Perriman, Willie Green, some others.” Had the Lions had better Front Office personnel, who knows where that team could have ended up, and what effect a better team would have had on Barry Sanders’ already breathtaking numbers? It’s also worth pointing out that in a Sanders/Smith meeting on the big stage Sanders had the biggest play despite the Cowboys loading up to try and take him away. The Lions passed 38 times in the game, but Sanders notched 99 yards and a touchdown on just 17 touches. Smith totalled 82 yards and no score from his 16 touches.

Barry SandersBarry Sanders had a running style all his own. Like all great running backs, everybody tried to find working comparisons, but none worked, because nobody has ever run like Barry Sanders. His style of being able to stop, change direction, and take off again, all in the same yard has never been matched, and it enabled him to break runs that nobody else could. As long as I have been watching football I have only ever seen one runner who moved like Barry Sanders, an ex Denver Bronco named Quentin Griffin (highlight video), and he wasn’t in the same ball-park in terms of talent.

The real skill he had that nobody has ever replicated was the ability to make people miss. One of my off-season projects is to go back and chart some Sanders games for PFF and I can’t even imagine the rate at which he forced missed tackles.

Former Bears LB Brian Cox once said that Barry Sanders made him miss 4 tackles on one play. Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary said “if you were able to get him running east to west, you had a chance. If he was moving north-south, forget about it. He was going to get you”. That’s one of the best linebackers ever to play essentially telling you he couldn’t stop Sanders one on one if he was coming right at him.

Teams game-planned for Sanders like no other back, because he could make plays even after everyone was convinced he had been stopped. On more than one occasion Sanders emerged from a pile of defenders, or was thrown to the ground, only to remain on his feet, spin out and break a big gain. The other backs in the discussion might have been productive, they might have been dominant, but nobody has ever run like Barry Sanders.

In 1997 Barry Sanders became only the 3rd player to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, after Eric Dickerson and OJ Simpson (Terrell Davis, Jamal Lewis, and Chris Johnson have since joined that group). After the first 2 games of the season, Sanders had only 53 yards. His final tally of 2,053 means that he gained 2000 yards in only 14 games, amassing over 100 in each of the last 14 games of the season, an NFL record. He finished the year with an average of 6.1 yards per attempt. This is second all-time only to Jim Brown’s 6.4 yards per attempt in 1963 and the yards gained that season moved him from 7th on the all-time list to 2nd, passing Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson – Hall of Famers, all. Barry Sanders added another honor to his ever expanding list that year when he was named the league’s MVP.

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Before the start of the 1999 season, Sanders retired from professional football, within touching distance of the all-time rushing record, then held by Walter Payton, and in the prime of his career. He explains in his book that it was no single thing that caused him to walk away from the game, but rather a multitude of factors all combining that led him to realise he just didn’t need it anymore. “Around the middle of my career, the game became something else, almost a burden in a lot of ways, and I stopped loving it. I lost my will”. Sanders felt betrayed by an organisation that showed no will to win, and after his 10 years in the league, the team had come full-circle, and was firmly back in rebuilding mode. Shocking the media and fans of the NFL, Sanders showed once again that the records weren’t enough to motivate him, when he walked away from becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, flipping the record to Emmit Smith in the same way as he flipped the ball to the official every time he scored a TD.

The day he retired Barry Sanders ranked 2nd on the all-time rushing list (he currently ranks 3rd). He is one of only 6 men to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, one of only 3 men to have multiple 1800 yard seasons. He holds the NFL record for most 1500 yard seasons with 5, and most consecutive 1500 yard seasons, with 4. He holds the NFL record for the most consecutive 100 yard games, most consecutive 100 yard games on the road, career TDs over 50 yards in length, most games of over 150 yards in a career, and is only two 100 yard rushing games away from the all time lead, in 73 fewer games than the holder of that record, Emmitt Smith. So why is there even a question of whether he was the greatest to ever play?

Barry SandersSanders suffers from some perceived negatives in his game, created by people looking for reasons to knock him off the spot at the top of the pyramid. These are the same people that said he was too small for the NFL, and they employ the same kind of thought process. These myths can be debunked:

Myth 1 – Barry Sanders could not run inside or at the goal line. 

This is a favourite of Barry Sanders critics. They point to his lack of TDs compared to other backs at the top of all-time lists, and the fact that his coaches took him out down at the goal line as evidence for a huge hole in his game. However, in the first 3 years of his career, Sanders scored 47 TDs, 21 of which came from within 4 yards, and 8 of which were from 1 yard out. The Lions coaching staff from 1992 onwards preferred having a bigger, power-back in on these situations, and took Sanders out of the game. He simply got shafted by a change in scheme philosophy. Does that mean that Sanders became a bad goal-line back overnight? The evidence of Sanders career, both college and pro, shows that Sanders could run as well as anybody around the goal line, but his numbers suffered because the Lions coaches preferred their own philosophy of using a heavy back in those situations. This is the same logic that sees Jamaal Charles being taken out of the game for Peyton Hillis when there is no clear evidence that he is actually better in tight quarters despite the size difference.

Myth 2 – Barry Sanders couldn’t catch.

The proponents of Walter Payton use this one a lot. ‘Barry Sanders was only a runner, he couldn’t do the other things that a RB has to be able to do, Walter Payton could do it all.’ Well, Barry Sanders finished his career with 352 catches over his 10 years – he averaged 35 catches a year. Walter Payton finished with 492 catches over his 13 years – he averaged 38 catches a year. Payton scored 15 receiving TDs, Barry Sanders scored 10. Payton averaged 9.2 yards per catch, and Sanders averaged 8.3. The statistics do indeed show that Payton edged Sanders in each category, but enough to rank one as an accomplished receiver, and the other as a guy who couldn’t catch? Of course not. We’re talking about a pretty small difference between the two. Nobody would confuse Sanders for Marshall Faulk but to suggest he was an incapable receiver is just foolish.  Similarly while Sanders may not have crushed people like Payton as a blocker, he was a capable blocking back able to pick up the blitz and do his job. At that point, who cares?

Myth 3 – Barry Sanders lost too much yardage to be the greatest. 

Another myth brought up a lot is that for every one of Barry Sanders’ great runs, he lost a ton of yardage, so much so that he is the NFL’s all-time leader in negative yardage from scrimmage. Whilst it’s true that Sanders is the all-time leader in negative yards, he averaged only 46 more lost yards a year than Payton did. Walter Payton, the man who always fell forward, who never said die. Despite the vast differences in perception between Sanders as a runner and Payton in a runner, the statistics amount to a difference in less than 3 yards a game. On the other hand Sanders overcame that to gain an average of 12 yards per game more than Payton throughout his entire career (99.8 vs 88).

Myth 4 – Barry Sanders could only run on turf, in the dome. 

This one’s the best myth of all. People will try and claim that Barry Sanders could only run on turf – ‘just look at his running style, it just wouldn’t work on grass!’ Unfortunately, these people have clearly never checked that out. During his career Sanders averaged 5.0 yards per carry both indoors and outdoors, on turf and on grass, at home and away. He was the very definition of consistency, averaging higher than 96 yards per game on any surface whether it was home or away.

Myth 5 – Barry Sanders couldn’t perform in the playoffs.

Well, whilst its true that Sanders didn’t perform outstandingly in the playoffs, he only played in 6 playoff games. The sample size just isn’t enough. That being said, the people who use this criticism rarely have a bad word to say about Payton in the same regard, yet Payton had only a lone 100 yard performance in 9 playoff games. Barry Sanders had only the one as well, but from 6 games, at a 4.2 average (as opposed to Walter Payton’s 3.5 yard per carry average. If this is a great flaw in Barry Sanders’ game, then we need to apply the same criticism to Walter Payton.

The only man to rival Barry Sanders statistically is Jim Brown, who shares some similarities to Sanders in his massive yards per carry averages, and the fact that he retired early in his career. The difference though is the eras in which they played, and how the yardage was gained. Jim Brown was a monster of a back, in an era where players weren’t as big as they are in the modern game. Brown was 232lbs at a time where linemen often weren’t any bigger, let alone linebackers. Brown could physically dominate, and could gain 6 yards just by lowering his head and charging. When Barry Sanders played, he played some of the greatest defensive players ever to step onto a field. He was running up against players like Reggie White, 300lb dominant forces. As well as players with the speed, and range of Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary. These guys are all Hall of Famers, and in White and Singletary, were players he would face twice a year within the division, yet Sanders would average 5 yards a carry against them, without being able to physically run over them.

Curtis Martin made this point in the program A Football Life (video above), claiming Brown would be different today, but Sanders would be the best back in the NFL in any era, regardless of what the players looked like.

Jim Brown also stepped onto what was already a dominant team, having been to the Championship game in 5 of the 6 seasons before they drafted him. By contrast, the Lions had failed to win more than 5 games in any of the 3 seasons before drafting Sanders. Brown has amazing statistics, but they were inflated by the opposition he faced. Sanders faced a list of the greatest defensive players to play the game, and made them all look foolish. The great Reggie White claimed that Barry Sanders was the only player he ever feared. “There was one guy since I’ve been playing that I was afraid of because he could beat us at any moment. That was Barry”.

Sanders re-wrote the record books during his college career and he re-wrote them during his professional career. He was so dangerous that teams had to invent new ways of defending against him, just to try and contain him from breaking that big run that would kill them. Despite being on some poor teams, with the franchise so mismanaged that it systematically removed its best talent during his career, Sanders racked up statistics that rival anybody’s. He retired within sight of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, and remains one of only a few backs to average 5 yards a carry every time they touched the ball.

Barry Sanders could do things nobody before or since has been able to do on a football field, and it shows in the damage he did to opposing defences throughout his career, despite being in a division with some elite units, and playing against a list of Hall of Fame defenders.

If all that still isn’t enough, just watch the videos.

Bert Bell – The Forgotten Commissioner

NFL commissioners get quite a lot of press these days. Pete Rozelle is remembered as arguably the greatest commissioner in professional sports, Paul Tagliabue oversaw the development of the NFL into the billion-dollar juggernaut it is today, and Roger Goodell is under endless scrutiny for his handling of things like player discipline and safety in today’s league.

But what about the men that went before them, and specifically the man that shaped the league as we know it, Bert Bell?

On October 11, 1959, Commissioner Bert Bell died of a heart attack in the stands of a game between the team he co-founded (The Eagles), and the team he had co-owned (The Steelers).

Bell, perhaps more than any other man, is responsible for the NFL that we know and love today, yet he remains largely forgotten in the mists of time, and his 50th anniversary went largely unnoticed as the league instead took to celebrating the AFL, inflicting those vertical striped socks that the Denver Broncos wore on us all.

By the time the upstart AFL took on the establishment of the NFL in 1960, the NFL was in excellent health, thanks largely to the work of Bell.

At the time of his appointment as Commissioner in 1946 the league was in danger of imploding. With ten strong-willed owners (think a room full of Jerry Jones clones) all vying for power and demanding that their plans be followed, the league was floundering in a money-losing stalemate. It had no direction, and was struggling simply to survive while owners fumed and railed at each other whenever they held a meeting. No league meeting was more chaotic and brutal than the annual meeting, because this was where the upcoming season’s schedule was decided.

The schedule at that time wasn’t decided the way it is today. With ten teams in the league divided into two divisions, the only requirement to a league schedule was that each team played a home and home series with every other team in their division. That accounted for 8 of the 12 games every team would play. The other 4 were up for grabs to the owner who argued the hardest and showed the most stamina in meetings. Teams wanted to play games that would net them a valuable gate receipt – games against the league glamour sides were at a premium.

Art Rooney once described the kind of staying power needed for these meetings: “The guys who snuck out to get some sleep wound up getting murdered the next season because they weren’t there to defend themselves, we’d give them all the dates we didn’t want.”

Over the 10-year span between 1937 and 1946 the Bears and Packers from the Western Division and the Giants and Redskins from the Eastern Division accounted for 19 of the 20 spots in the NFL Championship game. The league had become a tired exercise in professional football, and the teams that could win were the teams that turned a profit. The rest of the league more often than not was losing money and mounting debts. In the days where talent acquisition was simply a free for all those teams also found it increasingly hard to bid competitively on college players as they were in direct competition with every other NFL team.

Bell had had first hand experience of the pitfalls of ownership and the problems facing a struggling franchise. Early in his career he had bought the rights to the defunct Frankfort Yellow jackets and re-branded them the Philadelphia Eagles in time for the 1933 season. Under his leadership the Eagles were horrid, and Bell still accounts for one of the poorest winning percentages in NFL coaching history (Hey, I didn’t claim he was perfect!). Coming from that experience as the league’s doormat, Bell’s philosophy was that the league was like a chain, a chain that was only as strong as its weakest link, and he had experienced enough time as its weakest link to know better than anybody.

One of the first things he did when he took over as Commissioner was to take responsibility for the schedule away from the owners and begin to draw up the schedules himself, in his dining room, using cardboard, matchbooks and team-names. Think of the kind of crap Goodell takes these days for taking control of discipline, but Bell walked in and took the schedule away from the owners – the very foundation of the league and money revenue.

His plan going forward was that the weaker teams should play other weaker teams early in the season and the stronger teams should face each other. This would keep more teams in the race for longer, and also have the effect of helping out the weaker sides that had been losing fan support and crucial gate receipt dollars when their sides fell out of the race early in the season. He was aiming to make the league more competitive, and more of a spectacle for the fans.

Before he ever became league Commissioner, he had been responsible for another revolutionary change proposed whilst still owner of the Eagles – The Draft. Before Bell each NFL team had exactly the same rights to any available college player as any other team. The richer owners, the more successful teams naturally had a better chance of signing the elite players, and the divide between rich and poor within the league continued to widen. His proposal, 63 years ago, is more or less identical to what we all recognize as the NFL Draft: “At the end of each football season, we pool the names of all eligible college seniors. Then we make our selections in inverse order of the standings – that is, the lowest-ranked team picks first. We do this round after round until we have exhausted the supply of college players.”

Again, this is a fundamental shift in philosophy coming from one man. Rather than continue with a situation that could have led to a couple of rich teams owning the league in perpetuity, Bell proposed a change that would level the playing field one off-season at a time, or at least give everybody a shot at the talent.

The league’s first two scheduled title games, in 1933 and 1934, had featured the Giants and Bears, both controlled by strong owners, but Bell was a strong enough character to sell Tim Mara and George Halas on the necessity of such a plan. Bell’s vision was for the benefit of the league, and the fact that he was able to get even the most powerful owners with the most to lose to go along with it is a testament not only to the integrity of the plan, but to his standing within the league. It is also a striking demonstration that despite everything these longstanding owners did still value the NFL as a whole above everything else. They may have been prepared to bicker for days when necessary, but they were in this for the love of the game, not the pursuit of money or glory.

This was the first time the concept of parity, now a keystone of the NFL, began to be pursued, and it was Bell that started the chase. Indeed it was Bell that first coined the phrase “On any given Sunday”, referring to the competitive nature of the NFL after these changes. No Bell, no Al Pacino speech, or at least a crappier movie title for it.

The magnitude of these two revolutionary changes is impossible to overstate. Not only are they fundamental cornerstones of the league we recognize today, perhaps the only league in sports that strives to promote parity amongst its teams, but without those changes the NFL may never have made it through the next ten years. The league may not have survived the very real challenge of the upstart AAFC led by the powerhouse Cleveland Browns.

Bell not only reshaped the principles of the NFL, but he might well have saved its very existence.

The league was up against it in the battle with the new AAFC. The younger league had perhaps the country’s most recognized and respected coach in Paul Brown, and a group of owners significantly more wealthy than their NFL counterparts. The NFL had to rely on the good will it had already built up with the public. This good will was almost eroded completely in 1946 when an attempt to fix the NFL Championship game was uncovered by New York detectives. In the January 1947 meetings, the owners granted Bell the power to suspend for life any player or team official involved in a game-fixing attempt. Bell acted swiftly and suspended both of the players caught up in the scandal indefinitely. At a time when American sports was rife with corruption, Bell’s decisiveness in acting quickly and ruthlessly was instrumental in the NFL maintaining its standing in the eyes of the public. Bell knew for the league to survive the game had to be clean and beyond reproach. Public confidence in the NFL was everything. Goodell might be more draconian in his approach than the man he replaced, but he isn’t the first commissioner to act swiftly and harshly for what he perceived to be the good of the league.

As the war raged on between the NFL and the AAFC it was Bell’s earlier pursuit of parity and competition within the league that began to prove decisive. Whilst the AAFC was losing the interest of fans due to the runaway dominance of the Cleveland Browns, the NFL was enjoying spirited competition throughout. The nosedive in fan support of the AAFC ultimately led to the rival league capitulating in 1949 and the resultant ‘merger’ between the two leagues involved just 3 AAFC franchises being absorbed into the NFL: The Champion Cleveland Browns, the title game losing San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts.

Seen initially as a challenge that the NFL might not be able to survive, the AAFC ended up being simply another entity pistol whipped into shape by Bell. The NFL recorded a resounding victory that reasserted its primacy, and picked up the excellence of Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns as icing on the cake.

Bell was also instrumental in the way the NFL handled the emerging power of the TV markets, without which the NFL wouldn’t be the billion dollar corporate dynasty it is today. He came up with the unpopular, but undeniably effective blackout policy the league has employed for the better part of sixty years. This gave the league the benefit of TV money and exposure but without running the risk of losing gate receipt money as a trade.

He also created the 2-minute warning, a devise that would ensure that the TV companies would be able to air at least one commercial break per half during a game. This was the first concession to TV networks that has mutated into the modern coverage of the NFL with a commercial break every three seconds, so we might not look too kindly on old Bert for that one, but it’s important to realize that this is where the dollars come from – it’s advertising that makes the networks their money, and enables them to pay colossal sums for the NFL broadcasting rights in the first place. Bell also suggested the televising of night games, and his innovative policies surrounding TV coverage of the NFL were truly visionary for such a young technology, setting the template for the way the modern NFL works in many ways.

Bell’s reign as Commissioner of the NFL had seen him become such a shining beacon of integrity within the game, and develop such an unimpeachable powerbase that he was able to take on even the owners that had hired him. Going directly against their wishes, Bell recognized the NFL Players Association as a legitimate entity acting on the players’ behalf when it was formed. When the angry owners confronted him he simply referred them to the league’s constitution, which permitted him to act on any matter ‘in the interests of pro football’. Labor strife may not sound like a great bestowal, but the league benefits by players being looked after and protected independently.

His legacy was cemented in his lifetime and when the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1963 for the first 17 inductees, Bert Bell was the first name on the list of inductees. Of all the men the NFL had to thank for its success and prosperity by 1963, Bert Bell was the first man chosen.

In 1963 Bell was recognized as one of the men responsible for shaping the NFL, for bringing pro football into the consciousness of the American public and beyond, and he was rightly regarded as a colossus of the sport, deserved of his place at the very lead of the game’s heroes. It is now more than 50 years since he died in the stands of a game between the team he co-founded and the team he once co-owned, both franchises still active and successful, yet his name had faded from the memory of not only the average fan, but seemingly NFL reporters, and league offices as well.

The NFL owes too much to Bert Bell to allow his memory to fade into obscurity. Bert Bell may have done more for the NFL than any single other man, and deserves more than to be lost in the ether by anybody associated with the NFL, to be consigned merely to the history books.

P.S. Thanks to Pete Damilatis who alerted me to that video of Bell I hadn’t seen before.

Bob Hayes – Why Teams Chase Track Stars

Every year a team or two takes a shot on a track star in training camp, and most of the time it turns out they’re pretty lousy football players when the hitting starts, but the reason teams roll that dice every year is because of Bob Hayes.

Hayes is a Hall of Fame wide receiver who played for the Dallas Cowboys and is still the only man to have ever won both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.

He may well have been the fastest man on the planet when he turned his attention to pro football, and his speed was such a devastating weapon that he changed the way teams played defense.  He was essentially Usain Bolt 50 years earlier. A sprinting prodigy, but one that decided to take up football once he had achieved everything he wanted to as a sprinter, and despite the devastating effect he had on the NFL, his name tends to be forgotten when discussing past greats.

Hayes excelled both in track and football in college at Florida A&M.  In 1961, when he was just 18 years old, he equalled the world record for the 100 yard dash and would go on to dominate the sprinting landscape until he switched to football four years later.

He was so dominant that he never lost a 100 yard race, and was beaten just twice over 100 meters – once in a disputed photo finish that many claim he actually won, and once after missing three weeks of training recovering from a virus.  Over this span he also set new world records for the 60 yards indoors (one which was never broken), the 100 yard dash, the 100m and the 200m.  He also posted several other records that were deemed invalid and never officially ratified for a series of bizarre reasons, including the starting gun being the wrong make, such was the politics of the time.

Hayes became the first human ever to run under ten seconds for the 100m when he ran a wind-assisted 9.9 in 1963.  Usain Bolt may have moved that mark into the 9.5s, but Hayes was running on cinder tracks, not designed sprinting surfaces, and doing so in the 1960s without the aid of nutritionists, sports scientists and all of the various support staff modern athletes have in tow.

At the Olympics he took gold in both the individual 100m and the 4x100m relay.  Remember when Calvin Johnson ran a 4.35 40 time at the combine after borrowing somebody else’s shoes?  Well Bob Hayes won Olympic gold borrowing somebody’s shoes and running from the inside lane which had been so badly chewed up by the distance races that it had to be raked before the start.

His leg of the 4×100 race was termed ‘the most astonishing sprint of all time’ by the Los Angeles Times.  The unofficial time for that leg was 8.6 seconds, which enabled him to take around eight meters out of some of the best sprinters in the world, overtaking five of them during the leg, to take gold with a comfortable lead.  His time in the semi-final of the 100m (9.91) was the fastest ever Olympic time until three people ran faster in the Atlanta games, some 32 years later.

Despite retiring from athletics at just 22, Hayes is still one of the greatest sprinters of all time, competing the entire time as a college athlete, often around his college football career.

He dominated the sport doing it in his spare time, around his school work, and when football didn’t get in the way.

In today’s era of mind-boggling passing stats, his career numbers aren’t too remarkable at first glance, but his 71 receiving touchdowns are still the best mark by any Dallas Cowboy (even after HoFer Michael Irvin’s career), and his 7,414 yards came from just 371 receptions.

Hayed brought a different level of speed to the NFL.  Every now and then you see a guy that is just operating at a different speed to everybody else, they can make it through gaps other people can’t, and make the angles defenders take look foolish.  That’s impressive in an era where everybody is fast, but Hayes brought Olympic caliber speed to an NFL where not everybody was fast.  The league simply was neither prepared, nor able to defend it.  As a rookie he led the league with 12 receiving touchdowns on 1,003 yards on 46 catches in 13 games.  That’s an average of 21.8 yards per reception and was the first time any Cowboy had ever topped 1000 yards in a season.

His speed quickly earned him the nickname “Bullet”, and the Cowboys quickly made use of that speed on punt returns as well.

Before Hayes arrived teams were playing man-coverage almost exclusively.  When they had to cover Bullet Bob they quickly discovered they simply didn’t have anybody that could run with him (not surprisingly), so they had to turn to zone schemes.  The first player would run with him in a trail position (usually by default as much as design) and be forced to pass him off to a deeper player who had a head start on the running.  Bob Hayes effectively forced teams to adopt zone coverage because of his unique speed.  There aren’t many players in league history that have changed the way teams had to defend just to stop him – Hayes is one of them.

He was a 3x Pro Bowler, was named All-Pro 4 times, helped Dallas win 5 Eastern Conference titles, 2 NFC titles and a Super Bowl.  He reached the summit of two sports, retiring as one of the greatest ever in each.  Decades before Michael Jordan and Deion Sanders were seen as super athletes for simply trying to compete in a second sport, Hayes won titles in two sports, and dominated both.

Even today he holds 10 regular-season Cowboys records and 22 overall franchise marks. He is still the 3rd leading touchdown scorer in franchis history (after Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett, each in the Hall of Fame).  He retired with a career average of 20 yards per reception.  Randy Moss might be the most dominant deep threat of the past few decades but has a career average of just 15.6 yards per reception by comparison.

Despite a clearly worthy career it took until after his death for him to finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.  He was ignored by the Hall for far too long, but that wrong was finally righted.

So in the end you might wonder why your team is wasting a roster spot on a track star with not much football experience, but they’re doing it because the long-shot jackpot is finding the next Bob Hayes – the guy with the kind of speed to unravel a defense, and that’s worth rolling the dice on.

 

John Heisman – Not a man to piss off

I’ve always been fascinated by truly ruthless individuals.

Some guys are happy just to win, but some people want to make a point in the process. Some people you really shouldn’t piss off if you ever have to encounter them again, they’re that ruthless in the pursuit of revenge.  John Heisman was one of those men.

We live in a time where a 30-point margin of victory is excessive, and people will get extremely hot under the collar over an extra touchdown or two being run up on the scoreboard.

As head coach of Georgia Tech, Heisman once won a game 222-0.

Heisman wasn’t just a guy you didn’t want to piss off, but he was a legitimate innovator, and a great coach in his time. There is a reason his name adorns the trophy now given to college football’s best player each season.  He was the first man to employ a pair of pulling guards to lead an end run, a forerunner of the sweeps that would be used by Paul Brown and perfected into an art form by Vince Lombardi and the Packers.  He was also a big fan of the forward pass in a time when few were, and may have actually invented the modern center-quarterback exchange – before his time the ball had been either rolled or kicked back to the passer – that doesn’t seem like the smoothest exchange to me.

He coached for 32 years in the college game, and his best time came as the coach at Georgia Tech, whom he fashioned into a national power house.  During his 16 seasons at GT Heisman never had a losing record, and posted a 33-game undefeated run at one point, over which span his teams outscored their opponents by 1,599 to 99.  In 33 games he outscored opponents by 1,500 points. That’s an average scoreline of 48-3.  He wasn’t just into winning, he was into total destruction. It was a 73-0 beatdown of Georgia Tech when he was the head coach of Clemson that originally caused the Tech brass to hire him in the first place.

To be fair, there was some method to this ruthless laying waste of all in his path.  At that time southern football was still something of a backwater, and didn’t receive any of the recognition on a national stage. All of the big teams played on the coasts, with programs like Harvard, Army, Cal and Penn leading the way as the football power houses. Heisman was determined to show that his southern team belonged on any stage, and decided that the only way to do this was to launch a crusade against any and all opposition that stood before him. He was running up the score as much as he could deliberately to gain national attention, and at the end of the 1917 season – another undefeated one for GT – they won their first national title.

In the end he got exactly what he wanted, and proved the point he had been trying to make all along, while also making the point that messing with John Heisman is a bad idea as a bonus.

He was also the coach of the baseball team at Georgia Tech, and in the spring of 1915 that team was embarrassed by Cumberland University by a score of 22-0.  It had been rumored that the Cumberland side had used semi-pro ringers, though there was never any proof of it.  That pissed Heisman off in a major way, and he was a man that bore a grudge.

He had scheduled the football game between the two teams for the following year with a contract that would give Cumberland a $500 fee for appearing, but also stipulated a $3,000 forfeiture fee if they didn’t. Cumberland ended up pulling their football program entirely, but found themselves unable to get out of the contract to play Georgia Tech, and John Heisman was in no mood to be accommodating.

To increase the motivation of his Georgia Tech side he would field two complete teams that would alternate every quarter, and he promised that the team which scored the most points would be rewarded with a steak dinner each.  By half time of the game the score was already 126-0, and each of those teams had scored 63 points.

The game was such a train-wreck that the second half was cut short by 15 minutes.  The score of 222-0 was put up in a 45 minute game of football.

Cumberland didn’t achieve a single first down, but what’s even more remarkable is that neither did Georgia Tech – they scored every time they touched the football on offense.

The great sportswriter Grantland Rice, who witnessed the contest, reported somewhat sarcastically that “Cumberland’s greatest individual play of the game occurred when fullback Allen circled right for a 6-yard loss”. That wasn’t far from accurate.  They gained -28 yards on offense, and gained positive yardage just once – a 10-yard completion on 4th and 22!

The two sides held a reunion in 1956 to mark the 40th anniversary of the game.  Somewhat fittingly the 22 graduates of Georgia Tech were joined by just 6 graduates of Cumberland University to echo the original mismatch. The Cumberland QB recalled the level of strategy that the team was reduced to on the day. “On 4th and 25 deep in our own territory I called for a QB sneak. I made it back to the line of scrimmage.  If we had punted as we should have, Tech would have blocked the kick and the score would have been 229-0!”.

There are some ruthless, cold-hearted bastards in the game today, but I’m not sure there’s another John Heisman.  That was a guy you really didn’t want to piss off, and the level of his wrath has survived in memory for almost a century.

Ken Riley, Forgotten Great

A few years ago I was given one of those giant NFL Record & Facts Books as a Christmas present.

As you might expect, with a gig at Pro Football Focus, I like a stat as much as the next man, and coupled with a history degree, I was soon poring over past players and career stats and generally teaching myself a bit about some players that I didn’t know much about, but judging from the numbers they put up, probably should.

It was in the middle of this process that I came across Ken Riley.  This was a guy who played fifteen seasons in the NFL, picked off 65 passes, retired 4th on the NFL’s all-time interception list, set a franchise record for the Bengals with 9 in a season, and went to Super Bowl XVI.  Despite all this not many people know much about him, and I had barely heard the name. He’s become a forgotten man, and repeatedly ignored by the Hall of Fame selectors.

I looked into his career a little more, trying to find out some more about a guy who was before my time and eventually tracked down the man himself and interviewed him about his career, the game today and a few other thoughts.  This was probably my first real journalistic act, and it’s somewhat fitting that it all surrounded football.

Riley is and was a quiet guy, and I think that goes a long way to explaining his absence from the spotlight.  The league rewards flash.  The biggest stars tend to be those that court the spotlight, but those that just quietly get on with their job get ignored.

Riley was overshadowed on his own team by a flashier player in Lemar Parrish.  When he set the Bengals single-season franchise record for interceptions with nine, it was Parrish instead who went to the Pro-Bowl, with only two interceptions himself, and half the season spent out injured. Bizarrely, Riley didn’t make the Pro-Bowl once in his fifteen seasons of play, despite some seasons that were clearly at that level. He doesn’t understand it.

That’s something I don’t understand, a lot of people ask, but ask some of the players I played against and they’d tell you who the best players were. I never was real flashy, I just played the game. I hear that question a lot, and I just don’t know.

Riley still sits 5th on the all-time interceptions list, and the four guys in front of him are all in the Hall of Fame. The next player after him is Ronnie Lott, also in the Hall.  He was overlooked during his career, and he’s being overlooked now – when was the last time you heard his case for Canton discussed?  People railed about Art Monk for years, but where is Riley’s web campaign? When I spoke to Riley he seemed morose about the lack of recognition, and felt that his play spoke for itself, deserving more credit than he ever got:

65 all-time interceptions.  That’s a lot of picks, you’ve gotta be doing something right.

He was a complete football player, not like some of today’s corners for whom playing the run is an optional extra.

When I was playing if you couldn’t tackle, you couldn’t play. You were the last line of defense, you had to get the guy on the ground.  When I was playing you didn’t come out for turf toe.

I’ve taken a lot of heat recently for suggesting that Curtis Martin wouldn’t be in my Hall of Fame.  I can see the argument for him, and two of the biggest plus points in Martin’s column are durability and leadership.  Well Riley played for 15 seasons, and was a team captain for 8 of those.  Late on he made it to a Super Bowl and was part of the reason that Joe Montana could only complete 14 passes for 176 yards.  Paul Brown himself once said of Riley:

“He is a model football player and a real gentleman.  Youngsters would do well to pattern themselves after him.”

Maybe none of this would matter if the Bengals had been able to come away from that Super Bowl with a ring.  Players will tell you they would trade anything for that championship, the ring, and the right to call themselves champion for the rest of their days, the right to look down at that ring any time they want and be instantly transported back to the moment when they were the best there was.  Riley’s Bengals may have been the best team in the NFL that season, but they couldn’t get past the 49ers, who took them down twice that season including the Super Bowl.  After coming up short, so close to the dream, Riley doesn’t have that moment to put everything else in perspective.

We had the team to have won it all and to lose it…I don’t like watching Super Bowls even now.

When it was all over he took up coaching, returning to his alma mater, Florida A&M, and earned two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titled and two coach of the year awards.  Playing for Paul Brown gave him a pretty good role model when it came to life after the game.

He was a classy old man. When you play for Paul Brown you’re gonna know what you’re doing

In the end Riley knew what he was doing, and his play spoke for itself.  Maybe he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but Ken Riley was a great player, and remains a great man.  When I had the good fortune to stumble across his name in a book, I taught myself a little something about the game’s history, but when I spoke to Riley on the phone I was lucky to speak to one of the game’s greats.