July 6, 2010

1967: Jim Taylor Signs with Saints

The expansion New Orleans Saints achieved a high-profile signing on July 6, 1967 when Jim Taylor, star fullback with the Green Bay Packers, inked a contract. Taylor had played out his option with the Packers, and while clearly on the downside of his great career at age 31 (he would turn 32 early in the ’67 season) and after 1811 carries, had been contacted by several teams. A native of Baton Rouge who had played his college football at LSU, the new franchise in New Orleans was a natural choice.

Taylor had been with Green Bay since 1958 and was at the heart of the outstanding ground game during the Vince Lombardi coaching era. He rushed for over a thousand yards in five consecutive seasons and won the NFL rushing title with 1474 yards in 1962, the one year between 1957 and ’65 that Cleveland’s Jim Brown didn’t. He also set a record of 19 rushing touchdowns in that ’62 campaign – a mark that stood until 1983.

But after averaging 4.8 yards per carry during his first seven years in Green Bay, he averaged 3.5 yards in both the ’65 and ’66 seasons. A very physically punishing runner, the 6’0”, 214-pound Taylor was clearly wearing down. The Packers had drafted Jim Grabowski out of Illinois as his replacement, and after not signing a contract in his option year of 1966, it was apparent that his tenure in Green Bay had come to an end. Taylor’s high-profile backfield mate for much of his tenure with the Packers, HB Paul Hornung, was chosen by the Saints in the expansion draft but was forced to retire before the season due to a nagging neck injury.

While he provided a recognizable name for the new franchise, it was nevertheless an expansion team and not to be confused with the championship club Taylor had just left. The New Orleans offensive line was certainly not on a par with its Green Bay counterpart that had included Hall of Famers Jim Ringo at center (through 1963) and OT Forrest Gregg, and the outstanding pulling guards Jerry Kramer and Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston – nor, for that matter, was much of the rest of the club. As sportswriter Arnold Hano put it after the first preseason game, “The starting guards…were men named Jake Kupp and Del Williams, and they do not remind you of Jerry Kramer and Fred Thurston. Backing up Kupp and Williams are other guards who do not even remind you of Kupp and Williams.”

The Saints went 3-11 in their inaugural season and while Taylor was the leading rusher, it was with just 390 yards on 130 carries, for a 3.0 average gain with two touchdowns. He also caught 38 passes, second best on the team, for 251 yards and no scores. Bothered by nagging injuries, he split time at fullback with the less-accomplished veteran Ernie Wheelwright. His best rushing total was 39 yards on 14 carries in a loss to the Cowboys; he caught 7 passes for 50 yards in a contest at Philadelphia (the Eagles, who had been the first team to lose a regular season game to the Saints, 31-24 at Tulane Stadium, gained revenge in the rematch by a 48-21 margin).

Gary Cuozzo struggled as the starting quarterback, particularly as a classic drop-back passer behind a poor group of blockers, and split time with the more mobile veterans Bill Kilmer and Gary Wood. Rookie WR Dan Abramowicz, an unheralded 17th round draft pick out of Xavier of Ohio, was the star on offense with 50 pass receptions for 721 yards and six TDs. CB Dave Whitsell, a veteran obtained from the Bears, starred on defense where he was the NFL’s co-leader in interceptions with 10 (along with Detroit’s Lem Barney). Moreover, the Saints drew large and enthusiastic crowds at Tulane Stadium.

Taylor returned for the 1968 season, but when he was assigned to special teams for the opening preseason game, he left the club and announced his retirement. For Taylor, it was an unbecoming finale to his Hall of Fame career. He retired as the NFL’s number two rusher of all-time with 8597 yards on 1941 carries for a 4.4-yard average gain with 83 touchdowns. Taylor also caught 225 passes for another 1756 yards and 10 TDs.

In seven postseason games, he added 508 yards on 146 attempts (3.5 average) and two touchdowns, plus 19 catches for 137 yards and no scores. His playoff rushing numbers might not appear impressive, but he had memorable showings against strong defensive clubs (in particular the 1962 NFL title game against the Giants).

It was perhaps unfortunate that Taylor was a contemporary of Jim Brown, because he was overshadowed by the great Cleveland fullback throughout the best years of his career – a situation that he clearly resented. He was not gifted with the same level of talent as Brown, but Taylor devoted himself to conditioning and had a solid work ethic. Quiet off the field, he was an intimidating force on it, snarling at and taunting opposing defensive players while never shying from contact and fighting for every inch of ground he could gain. He was a perfect fit in the Green Bay offense and, while Jim Brown won the rushing titles and accolades, it was Taylor playing on four championship teams to Brown’s one.