May 14, 2011

1968: Steelers Deal Bill Nelsen to Browns

On May 14, 1968 the Pittsburgh Steelers traded QB Bill Nelsen and safety Jim Bradshaw to the Cleveland Browns for QB Dick Shiner, DT Frank Parker, and an unspecified draft choice. The deal officially brought to an end Nelsen’s injury-riddled career in Pittsburgh, and at the time was seen as an effort to bolster the defensive line.

The 27-year-old Nelsen came to Pittsburgh in 1963 as a tenth round draft pick out of USC, where he had split time at quarterback with Pete Beathard during a 1962 season in which the Trojans were national champions. While he wasn’t big at 6’0” and 195 pounds, and didn’t possess an especially strong arm, he proved to be a decent passer with a good attitude and outstanding leadership qualities.

After backing up veteran QB Ed Brown in his first two seasons, Nelsen took over as starting quarterback in ’65, but was playing on a bad knee. He missed time and was challenged for the starting job by another young (and less talented) quarterback, Tommy Wade. After off-season surgery, he came back in 1966 and went down with an injury to the other knee. In 1967, Nelsen lost his starting job to Kent Nix as he missed eight games with further knee problems.

In trading Nelsen for Dick Shiner, the Steelers were obtaining a quarterback who had come into the NFL a year later but had seen far less action. A seventh-round draft choice out of Maryland by the Redskins in 1964, Shiner had been strictly a backup behind Sonny Jurgensen in Washington for three years and then Frank Ryan in Cleveland for one, and broke his leg in practice the previous year.

Speculation initially centered around Parker as the key to the trade. The 6’5”, 270-pound defensive tackle missed all of 1965 due to a major knee injury suffered in ‘64 that required surgery. A promising player prior to the injury, he had played sparingly in the two seasons since.

Jim Bradshaw saw little action in ’67, playing both safety positions, after losing his starting job to former Pitt star Paul Martha. He had intercepted a total of nine passes in 1965 and ’66. In 1967, he also returned 16 punts for a 6.1-yard average.

“Parker will give us the interior pass rushing we needed so badly last season,” said Steelers Head Coach Bill Austin. “As far as quarterbacks are concerned, if we opened our NFL schedule tomorrow I'd go with Kent Nix.” Austin added that “I still think Nelsen is a good football player who has been very unfortunate because of injuries. If he didn't beat out Nix this summer it would be very discouraging for him. A shift in scenery should help.”

The change in scenery proved more beneficial to Nelsen’s career than was anticipated when the deal was culminated. 32-year-old Frank Ryan had played well at quarterback for the Browns, including leading them to a championship in 1964, but injuries suffered during the ’67 season took their toll. When the team started off poorly in 1968, Nelsen took over as starting quarterback and significantly reinvigorated the passing game. The Browns won eight of their last nine contests and advanced to the NFL title game before losing to the Colts. Nelsen ranked sixth among the league’s passers, throwing for 2366 yards and 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.

Nelsen was even better in 1969, earning selection to the Pro Bowl as he threw for 2743 yards and 23 TDs. The Browns again advanced to the NFL Championship game before succumbing to the Minnesota Vikings. With the merger, Cleveland moved to the AFC and Nelsen stayed on as the starting quarterback for two more seasons before giving way to highly-touted Mike Phipps in 1972, his final year. Playing with two bad knees that had him wearing aluminum braces during games, and thus lacking mobility, he nevertheless did well in Cleveland. Over the course of five seasons, four as the starter, Nelsen threw for 9725 yards with 71 touchdowns and, most significantly, the Browns went 34-16-1 in the regular season with him under center and 2-3 in the playoffs.

Dick Shiner ended up supplanting Nix as the starting quarterback in Pittsburgh, but the team played poorly. In two seasons with the Steelers, he proved to be inconsistent and the club’s record in his starts was a dismal 3-16-1. Having drafted, first, QB Terry Hanratty in 1969 and then, with the first overall choice in ’70, Terry Bradshaw, Shiner was traded to the Giants, where he saw little action behind veteran star Fran Tarkenton. Moving on to Atlanta in 1971, he was still a backup, but had the distinction of starting the opening game of the ’73 season and earning a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in a 62-7 shellacking of the New Orleans Saints. It was the highlight of his career, and he lost the starting job to Bob Lee shortly thereafter, finishing up with the Patriots in ’74.

Frank Parker was just a backup defensive lineman in Pittsburgh and moved on to the Giants for one last year in 1969. Jim Bradshaw was waived during the preseason and never again played in the NFL.

The conditional draft choice ended up being used by the Steelers to take RB Warren Bankston of Tulane in the second round in 1969. He was a backup for four seasons in Pittsburgh before moving on to Oakland in ’73.

All told, the trade for Bill Nelsen proved to be a good one for the Browns. The Steelers would ultimately put together four championships in the decade of the 1970s, but the 1968 deal with Cleveland was not a part in that process (although the poor play in ’68 set the stage for the hiring of Chuck Noll as head coach and the accompanying rebuilding job).