September 24, 2011

1967: Bakken Kicks 7 Field Goals as Cardinals Defeat Steelers

Jim Bakken of the St. Louis Cardinals was already well-established as a top placekicker prior to the 1967 NFL season, having kicked 80 field goals over the previous four years and been selected to the Pro Bowl in 1965. He had kicked two three-pointers in the team’s opening-game loss to the Giants to give him field goals in 12 consecutive games. But on September 24 against the Steelers, the 26-year-old straight-ahead kicker of the old school put his name prominently in the record book.

The Cardinals, coached by Charley Winner, came into the game as ten-point underdogs. While St. Louis was coming off an 8-5-1 season in ’66, veteran QB Charley Johnson had been called up to active military duty, leaving untested second-year QB Jim Hart to direct the offense. To be sure, there was still plenty of talent on offense, including a good group of running backs in HB Johnny Roland, HB Prentice Gautt, and FB Willis Crenshaw, as well as TE Jackie Smith and flanker Bobby Joe Conrad. Still, the Steelers, under Head Coach Bill Austin, had beaten the Bears in their Week 1 game by the convincing score of 41-13 while the Cards were losing to the Giants, 37-20.

There were 45,579 fans at Pitt Stadium, and any hopes that the Steelers would cruise to a second win were quickly dashed. In the first 20 minutes of action, the Cardinals took advantage of three interceptions and a fumble recovery to put 16 points on the board while having great success at keeping Pittsburgh’s offense off-balance with blitzes.

CB Pat Fischer intercepted two passes and DT Chuck Walker recovered a fumble, keeping the action almost exclusively in Pittsburgh territory as a result. Still, the St. Louis offense had difficulty getting into the end zone. Bakken kicked first quarter field goals of 18 and 24 yards before Hart scored a touchdown near the end of the period on a 23-yard run on a broken play due to a mixup in the backfield.

Bakken kicked a 33-yard field goal in the second quarter, making the score 16-0, before the Steelers finally got on the board. Pittsburgh QB Bill Nelsen didn’t complete a pass until there were just over five minutes to go in the first half, but once he found the range he was successful on three straight throws, one of 48 yards to TE Chet Anderson and the last a five-yard scoring pass, again to Anderson. Bakken booted his fourth field goal, from 29 yards, before the first half was over and the Cardinals took a 19-7 lead into the intermission.

In the third quarter, and following an interception by DB Marv Woodson, the Steelers scored again after driving 33 yards, highlighted by a 19-yard Nelsen completion to split end Roy Jefferson, with FB Willie Asbury plunging in for a one-yard TD. That reduced the Cardinals’ margin to five points at 19-14.

However, that was it for Pittsburgh. Nelsen left the game with five minutes to go due to a knee injury after taking a pounding from the Cardinals defense, getting sacked five times and hit on several other occasions after having just gotten rid of the ball. Meanwhile, Bakken kicked three field goals, of 24, 32, and 23 yards, in the fourth quarter to nail down the 28-14 win for St. Louis as well as set a new single-game record both for field goals made and attempted in a game.

The seven field goals made broke the previous NFL mark of six set just the year before by Detroit’s Garo Yepremian (Gino Cappelletti had already kicked six in an AFL game in 1964). Bakken’s nine attempts (he missed from 50 and 45 yards) exceeded the record of eight that had been held by Yepremian, from his six-field goal game in ‘66, and Lou Michaels of the Steelers in 1962.

Five of the successful kicks were into the 14 mph wind at Pitt Stadium. Bakken also had a substitute holder for the last three, when his regular holder, FS Larry Wilson, suffered a hand injury and Bobby Joe Conrad took over.

It was also the 13th straight game in which Bakken kicked a field goal, putting him one short of the existing NFL record (he surpassed that mark and topped out at 19).

“I knew about the record, and it almost cost me,” Bakken said afterward. “When I kicked the seventh one, I wanted to see if it was any good almost before I kicked it. So I looked up and almost dubbed it. I just made it.”

Beyond Bakken’s heroics, the Cardinals outgained Pittsburgh by 283 yards to 237 while the Steelers had more first downs (17 to 12). The big difference in the game was Pittsburgh’s six turnovers, to just one suffered by the Cards.

The inexperienced Jim Hart continued to struggle, as he completed just 8 of 25 passes for 137 yards with one intercepted. In the last 2:30 of the game, Charley Johnson, on leave from military duty, made his first appearance of the season for the Cardinals but threw no passes. Prentice Gautt ran for 77 yards on 14 carries to lead the club, while split end Bill Gambrell was the top receiver with three catches for 55 yards.

For the Steelers, Bill Nelsen also was successful on just 8 of his 25 throws for 130 yards with a TD and three interceptions. His replacement, Kent Nix, was good on three of five passes for 46 yards. Chet Anderson and split end Dick Compton both caught four passes, with Anderson gaining 84 yards and scoring a touchdown (Compton had 51 yards). HB Jim “Cannonball” Butler led the club with 51 yards on 10 rushing attempts.

The Cardinals won their next two games but then tailed off to finish at 6-7-1 and in third place in the Century Division. Jim Hart showed poise and potential as the starting quarterback, although he also tossed 30 interceptions, but an undercurrent of racial discord led to dissension on the club. Pittsburgh lost four more games in a row before beating the expansion Saints and ended up at the bottom of the division with a 4-9-1 record.

Jim Bakken led the NFL in field goals (27), field goal percentage (69.2), and scoring (117) and was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time. As was the case with most kickers of that era (not to mention earlier in football history), Bakken had not started out as a specialist but had been a high school quarterback and college defensive back who also handled the placekicking. He was originally drafted out of Wisconsin by the Rams as a safety in 1962 and was waived and picked up by the Cardinals. While Bakken saw some action in the defensive backfield that first year, he became the team’s full-time placekicker in ’63 and remained in the job until 1978, a total of 16 seasons.

At the time of his retirement, Bakken ranked third in career field goals in NFL history (282, tied with Fred Cox), extra points (534), and second in scoring (1380 points). He had a respectable 63.1 percent success rate on his field goal attempts and was a consensus first-team All-Pro twice later in his career (1975 and ’76) and was selected to a total of four Pro Bowls. Soccer-style kickers, who had not yet entered the pro ranks when Bakken first started out, were dominant by the end of his career, which even spanned the move of the goal posts from the goal line to the back of the end zone in 1974. But the player who had learned to placekick as an afterthought while playing other positions before he was a pro ended up being one of the best of the old-style kickers.

The record of seven field goals in a game was equaled by Rich Karlis of the Vikings in 1989, as well as two Dallas placekickers, Chris Boniol in 1996 and Billy Cundiff in 2003, before being broken by Tennessee’s Rob Bironas with eight in a contest against the Texans in 2007 (Shayne Graham of the Bengals kicked seven in a game later in the ’07 season). The record of nine attempts in a game still stands as of this writing, and Bakken of course remains the only straight-ahead kicker with as many as seven.