March 23, 2010
On March 23, 1959 the Los Angeles Rams swung one of the most celebrated trades in pro football history, sending nine players (including two draft picks) to the Chicago Cardinals for the great all-purpose running back, Ollie Matson.
The 6’2”, 220-pound Matson had certainly been an outstanding player in his six seasons with the Cardinals, appearing at halfback, fullback, in the defensive backfield, and as a record-breaking kick returner. He gained 3331 yards rushing on 761 carries for a 4.4-yard average and 24 touchdowns – his highest season total was 924 yards in 1956. He also caught 130 passes for 2150 yards (16.5 yards per catch) and another 16 TDs. Matson returned 86 kickoffs for a 28.5-yard average and record six touchdowns, leading the league with a 35.5 average in ’58. Returning punts, he averaged 10.9 yards on 48 returns with three more TDs. Adding in 51 yards on three interception returns, he had accumulated 8459 all-purpose yards, twice leading the NFL in that category. Honors included selection to the Pro Bowl after all six seasons and consensus first team All-Pro honors after four of them.
For all of Matson’s heroics, the Cardinals had not done well on the field. From 1952 through ’58 (and excluding 1953, when Matson missed the season due to military service), the team went a combined 22-48-2 with just one winning record (7-5 in ’56). The opportunity to deal their star for a big package of players was not one to disregard.
The Rams gave up OT Ken Panfil, DT Frank Fuller, DE Glenn Holtzman, DT Art Hauser plus 1959 draftees RB Don Brown, RB Larry Hickman, and end John Tracey along with two picks in the 1960 draft (second and fourth rounds). The deal, swung by GM Pete Rozelle (the future NFL commissioner), proved to be disastrous for the Rams, but didn’t lift the Cardinals into contention either.
The trade was certainly considered a good one for the Cardinals at the time. The key players sent to Chicago were Fuller and Panfil. Fuller (pictured at left), a four-year defensive tackle in LA, went to the Pro Bowl in 1959 and remained with the Cardinals until the end of his career in 1963, proving to be the best of the acquisitions. Panfil had been with the Rams for three seasons and started at right tackle – he also went to the Pro Bowl with the Cardinals in ’59 but played only one more full year before suffering a cracked kneecap in a 1961 preseason game that effectively ended his career as he appeared in just four contests in ‘61 and ’62. Glenn Holtzman had been a starter on the Rams defensive line, but never played in another regular season game. Art Hauser was another four-year veteran with the Rams who had missed the 1958 season and appeared in just two games with Chicago before being sent to the Giants.
Of the rookies in the deal, Larry Hickman lasted one season and gained 18 yards rushing on five carries and caught one pass. John Tracey did little as a tight end with the Cardinals before being moved to linebacker in his second season – he ended up starring at that position, but with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills. Don Brown didn’t play for the Cardinals due to injury.
The choices in the 1960 draft were used to take G Mike McGee out of Duke, who played three seasons with the Cardinals, and Marquette end Silas Woods, who didn’t make the club.
Overall, the team’s record was a disappointing 2-10 in 1959, the franchise’s last year in Chicago before relocating to St. Louis in ’60. With the move came greater competitiveness on the field as the Cardinals went 6-5-1 in 1960 and 7-7 in ’61. However, they would not become contenders until after the impact of the Matson deal had largely passed.
Matson played well for the Rams, gaining 863 yards to finish third in rushing in 1959. But the team that had contended with an 8-4 record in ’58 dropped to 2-10 and a last place finish. They would remain a losing team until the arrival of George Allen as head coach in 1966. Matson became a target of controversy as the club lost games and the deal that had brought him to Los Angeles was viewed as the chief reason for the downfall. It didn’t help that, particularly after Bob Waterfield replaced Sid Gillman as head coach in 1960, his production dropped off significantly.
Waterfield moved Matson to safety late in the 1960 season, but he was moved back to offense in ‘61 and used as a slot back and blocking fullback. While he caught 29 passes for 537 yards, he ran the ball only 24 times for 181 yards. The situation worsened in 1962 as Matson, typically quiet and classy, complained about the way he was being used and ended up being benched for much of the season.
Matson’s numbers in the three seasons following his solid 1959 showing were 88 rushes for 351 yards (4.0 average) with three touchdowns, 47 catches for 684 yards (14.6 average) and four scores, a 4.1-yard average on 15 punt returns and 23.2 average on 25 kickoff returns. They were hardly the statistics anticipated when Matson was dealt for at such a huge price, but he couldn’t be blamed for multiple errors by the front office (the Matson trade wasn't the only questionable move made by the Rams in the late 50s) and misuse by his coaches.
Matson was dealt to Detroit and played sparingly in 1963, but resurrected his career with the Philadelphia Eagles at age 34 in ’64, where he proved to be a valuable backup at halfback for the final three seasons of his Hall of Fame career.