October 31, 2009

1987: Eric Dickerson Traded to Colts

As the trick-or-treaters made their way around America’s neighborhoods on the night of October 31, 1987, the news broke of a blockbuster three-team trade that sent Eric Dickerson, the NFL’s leading rusher in three of the past four seasons, from the Los Angeles Rams to the Indianapolis Colts. As befitting a player of Dickerson’s stature, the deal was a large one that involved a total of 10 players and draft picks.

Dickerson had been a sensation from his first season in the league, leading the NFL as a rookie with 1808 yards rushing (still the record for a first-year back) in 1983. He followed that up in ’84 by breaking O.J. Simpson’s single-season rushing record with 2105 yards. By the end of the 1986 season he had run for a total of 6968 yards on 1465 carries for a 4.8 average gain per carry and 55 touchdowns – staggering numbers for just four years.

However, by 1987 all was not well between the star running back and the Rams front office. Dickerson had held out in 1985, missing the first two games of the season, and now was asking to renegotiate a contract that was paying him $682,000. Tired of the constant contract bickering and concerned that Dickerson’s attitude was having a bad effect on the team, the Rams decided to swing a deal – provided, of course, that they could receive ample compensation in a trade. The team was off to a dreadful 1-5 start (the only win was registered by replacement players during the players’ 24-day strike) and was looking to re-stock for the future.

The complex deal that was hammered out started off with the Buffalo Bills trading RB Greg Bell along with two number one draft picks (1988 and ’89) and a second round pick in 1989 to the Colts for the rights to LB Cornelius Bennett, who had been their #1 draft pick in ’87 (second overall in the entire draft) but who was holding out for more money than the team was willing to pay. Indianapolis turned around and dealt Bell, RB Owen Gill, all three Buffalo draft choices, plus their own #1 pick in 1988 and #2 choices for 1988 and ’89 for Dickerson.

How did it all turn out? Well, for Dickerson it resulted in a four-year contract worth $5.6 million dollars and being reunited with his college coach at Southern Methodist, Ron Meyer, who was now head coach in Indianapolis. He was in uniform the next day with the Colts and proceeded to run for 1011 yards in the remaining nine games. The Colts won the AFC East with a 9-6 record, making it to the postseason for the first time since they were the Baltimore Colts in 1977.

Buffalo also received an immediate boost from the addition of Bennett, who started the last seven games at outside linebacker and recorded 8.5 sacks. He would go on to be selected to five Pro Bowls with the Bills.

As for the Rams, they rallied to finish the season at 6-9. RB Charles White, a Heisman-winning disappointment in Cleveland, stepped into Dickerson’s position and led the league in rushing (1374 yards to Dickerson’s combined total of 1288). Greg Bell didn’t contribute much the rest of the way in ’87, but had thousand-yard rushing seasons in 1988 and ’89 and scored a total of 31 touchdowns. Owen Gill, on the other hand, appeared in one game and was gone for good. The two #1 draft choices that they picked up in the deal turned out to be RB Gaston Green (did little with the Rams but had a couple of good years with Denver) and WR Aaron Cox (showed promise as a rookie but regressed thereafter), and the #1 draft choice for 1989 was RB Cleveland Gary (led the NFL with 14 rushing TDs in 1990, but was inconsistent and prone to fumbling). The extra #2 choice in 1988 went for LB Fred Strickland (started 27 games in 5 years with LA), and the two second round choices in ’89 were used for LB Frank Stams (16 starts in 3 years with the Rams) and DB Darryl Henley (decent player who started 54 games over 6 seasons and returned punts).

Moreover, the Rams rebounded to return to the postseason in 1988 and ’89, getting all the way to the NFC Championship game in the latter season, before falling into a steep decline that wouldn’t be reversed until the franchise was in St. Louis. The cache of draft choices obtained in the Dickerson deal failed to translate into longer-term success.

October 30, 2009

2005: Tiki Barber Runs for 206 Yards in Emotional Win Over Redskins

The Week 8 matchup on October 30, 2005 at Giants Stadium between the Giants and Washington Redskins featured two 4-2 teams sitting atop the NFC East standings (along with the Philadelphia Eagles). A layer of poignancy was added to what was already a key division showdown by the death five days previously of Wellington Mara, the 89-year-old co-owner of the franchise.

What resulted was a lopsided 36-0 beating of the Redskins by the emotionally charged Giants, led by running back Tiki Barber’s 206 yards on the ground over just three quarters of action. The defense, which had been subpar in previous weeks, rose to the occasion in this game, shutting out Washington in decisive style, including three turnovers forced in their first 11 possessions. The Redskins managed just 125 total yards and 7 first downs.

But it was Barber who spurred the win, running 57 yards on the first play from scrimmage to set up the initial score (a 39-yard field goal by Jay Feely). It wasn’t his longest run of the day; he went 59 yards in the second quarter to set up a short touchdown by RB Brandon Jacobs. Barber’s 24th and final carry of the game, late in the third quarter, resulted in his lone touchdown of the day and he handed the ball to one of Wellington Mara’s grandchildren before exiting.

The 206 yards weren’t Barber’s season high; he had 220 yards against Kansas City on December 17 and ended up being one of three runners in NFL history with three or more 200-yard games in a season. Criticized for lacking durability and being prone to fumbling earlier in his career, Barber had taken part in an offseason conditioning program that paid off in outstanding performances in 2004, ’05, and ‘06 – he set a Giants single-season rushing record in 2005 with 1860 yards on 357 carries at age 30 and was at his best in his last three years, a rarity among pro running backs.

As for the Giants, they went on to win the NFC East title in 2005, but lost to Carolina in the Wild Card playoff round.

October 29, 2009

1950: Marion Motley Averages Over 17 Yards Per Carry vs. Steelers

Marion Motley had been a formidable fullback for the Cleveland Browns during the team’s four years of domination in the All-America Football Conference, and that didn’t change when the club moved to the NFL in 1950.

Motley’s ability was never more vividly displayed than on October 29, 1950 against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium as he rushed for 188 yards on just 11 carries for an average of 17.09 yards per attempt. Along the way he scored on runs of 33 and 69 yards as the Browns, with a 4-2 record entering the contest, decimated the Steelers by a score of 45-7. Cleveland would go on to win the NFL Championship in ’50, adding to their list of titles in two leagues.

For Motley, the first “modern” fullback with speed to back up his formidable power, it wasn’t surprising that he would set a record pertaining to yards per carry. Used to devastating effect on draw plays as part of the sophisticated (for its time) Cleveland offense under Head Coach Paul Brown, he had never averaged less than five yards per attempt in the AAFC with a staggering high of 8.2 yards per carry (601 yards on just 73 attempts) in 1946. He ended up leading the NFL in both rushing (810 yards) and yards per carry (5.8) in 1950, and for his career gained an average of 5.7 yards each time he ran the ball (AAFC and NFL).

Motley was one of the first four African-American players to break the pro football color line in 1946 (one of the others was teammate Bill Willis). Considering his talent as a ground-gaining fullback, it’s a bit surprising that he didn’t carry the ball more often (his career high was 157 carries in 1948, when he led the AAFC in rushing with 964 yards). Coach Brown valued Motley as a blocker (by all accounts, he was an exceptional pass blocker) and preferred to utilize his running ability strategically; one can only speculate at what his rushing totals might have been had he carried more regularly.

Motley’s record lasted over 50 years, until broken by Atlanta QB Michael Vick in 2002 (17.3 yards per carry on 10 attempts for 173 yards). Oddly, the record that Motley broke had been set just three weeks before when Bill Grimes of the Packers rushed for a 16.7-yard average (10 carries for 167 yards) on October 8, 1950 against the New York Yanks.

October 28, 2009

1962: Y.A. Tittle Passes for 505 Yards and 7 Touchdowns

The trade of Y.A. Tittle from the 49ers to the New York Giants prior to the 1961 season revived the quarterback’s career and paid dividends for his new team. With a new lease on his football life, Tittle led the Giants to the Eastern Conference title and a loss to Green Bay in the championship game.

By the time the Giants faced the Washington Redskins at Yankee Stadium on October 28, 1962, they had compiled a solid 4-2 record. However, the Redskins, who had been a lowly 1-12-1 in ’61 were the talk of the NFL at 4-0-2, largely due to the addition of halfback-turned-flanker Bobby Mitchell, who had come to Washington in an offseason trade. In combination with the strong-armed second year QB Norm Snead, Mitchell had become a major offensive force.

It was Snead to Mitchell to start off the scoring in the first quarter on a 44-yard pass play that put Washington on top, 7-0. However, Y.A. Tittle led the Giants to a score with his first TD pass of the day, 22 yards to HB Joe Morrison, and followed up with a 5-yard touchdown strike to TE Joe Walton.

The Redskins closed to within 21-13, but Tittle threw his third TD pass, a short one-yarder to Morrison, to close out the first half scoring. Snead hit Mitchell for an 80-yard TD in the third quarter that closed the Giants lead to 21-20, but from that point it was all Tittle and the Giants. Tittle threw three more scoring passes in the third quarter – 53 yards to split end Del Shofner, 26 yards to TE Walton, and 63 yards to flanker Frank Gifford – and his record-tying seventh of the day in the fourth quarter, a 6-yard strike to Walton.

At this point the Giants had the game well in hand by a 49-20 score; Washington scored two fourth quarter TDs to make the final tally 49-34, but the Giants and their QB had sent a clear message as to which team was the one to beat in the Eastern Conference. For the day, Tittle completed 27 of 39 passes for 505 yards, as well as the 7 TDs, with no interceptions. Del Shofner wreaked havoc on Washington’s defensive backs, catching 11 of Tittle’s passes for 269 yards and a TD. Gifford added 127 yards on 4 catches and Walton, who caught the most scoring passes, snagged a total of 6 for 63 yards. Lost in the shuffle was Bobby Mitchell’s 158 yards on 5 catches for the Redskins.

The Giants went on to repeat as Eastern Conference champions with a 12-2 record, again losing to the Packers in the title game. Y.A. Tittle set a new NFL record for TD passes in a season with 33 (he would break his own record in 1963, tying George Blanda, who had already thrown 36 with Houston in the AFL in ’61) while throwing for a career-high 3224 yards. Washington faded badly in the second half of the season, ending up with a 5-7-2 record – the defensive backfield had been exposed by the Giants, and in combination with an injury to Mitchell, the Redskins were unable to keep up the pace.

October 27, 2009

1996: Vinny Testaverde Passes for Ravens Record 429 Yards

Vinny Testaverde encountered plenty of ups and downs during his long career as an NFL quarterback. Highly touted as the Heisman Trophy-winning first overall draft choice of Tampa Bay in 1987, he suffered through six difficult seasons with the Buccaneers before moving on to the Cleveland Browns in 1993. When the Browns franchise became the Baltimore Ravens in 1996 (leaving the team name and history behind), Testaverde moved along with them as the starting QB.

On October 27, 1996 Testaverde became the first 400-yard passer for the Ravens in a Week 9 matchup at Memorial Stadium against the visiting St. Louis Rams. He filled the air with passes in the 37-31 overtime win, completing 31 of 51 throws for 429 yards. Three of the passes went for TDs and two were intercepted.

Baltimore was down 13-0 in the second quarter before Testaverde threw his first TD pass of the day, 27 yards to WR Floyd Turner. The extra point attempt failed, and in the third quarter Todd Lyght of the Rams intercepted a Testaverde pass and returned it 25 yards for a score. However, the Ravens climbed back into the game, with Matt Stover kicking a 50-yard field goal and RB Bam Morris reaching the end zone on a three-yard run that was followed by a successful Testaverde-to-WR Derrick Alexander two-point conversion. The gap was now closed to 20-17.

The Rams led off the scoring in the fourth quarter with a 36-yard Chip Lohmiller field goal, after which Testaverde passed the Ravens into the lead for the first time with his second TD toss of the game, 13 yards to Alexander for a 24-23 lead. Bam Morris scored another running touchdown to put Baltimore ahead, 31-23, but the Rams tied the game with two runs by RB Harold Green – one for a one-yard touchdown and another for a two-point PAT.

Fittingly, it was a Testaverde touchdown pass that won the game in overtime for the Ravens, as he hit WR Michael Jackson for a 22-yard score.

It was an exciting win for the Ravens – and the only one during a 1-7 midseason stretch on the way to a 4-12 overall record. However, Testaverde ended up with career highs in passing yards (4177) and TD passes (33), both of which remain franchise records.

Vinny Testaverde went on to play for the Jets, Cowboys, Patriots, and Panthers before finally calling it a career at age 44 following the 2007 season. Plagued by inconsistency, he never achieved the greatness that was anticipated when he came into the league with the Buccaneers. However, as the game against the Rams proved, over the course of 21 seasons he was capable of delivering big performances.

October 26, 2009

1980: Bert Jones Sacked 12 Times by Cardinals

The Week 8 matchup on October 26, 1980 at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium featured the Colts (4-3) taking on the visiting St. Louis Cardinals (2-5). After back-to-back 5-11 seasons in which QB Bert Jones had barely seen any action due to serious shoulder injuries, the Colts were on the upswing and the return of a healthy Jones was the key to the resurgence.

The Cardinals had also been 5-11 in 1979 and were attempting to rebuild under new Head Coach Jim Hanifan. On this day, the object of the St. Louis defense was, in the words of DE Curtis Greer, “to make Jones step up in the pocket”. What happened was Jones being sacked an NFL-record 12 times, with 4.5 credited (unofficially) to Greer (sacks were still two years away from being an officially recognized statistic for individual players). While the Cardinals weren’t the first team to record 12 sacks in a game, it was the first time that the same quarterback was the victim all 12 times.

For all of that, the game was close, with the Cardinals taking a 17-3 lead in the third quarter and holding on to win, 17-10. Jones took a beating, losing a total of 73 yards on the sacks, but managed to complete 19 of 43 passes for 250 yards and a TD while tossing two interceptions (he completed 9 of those passes, for 120 yards, to WR Roger Carr). The net passing yards were fairly even (171 for the Cardinals vs. 177 for Baltimore), and star RB Ottis Anderson of St. Louis was held to just 51 yards on 20 carries. So, defense had been the key.

Since that time, two more quarterbacks have been sacked 12 times in a game – Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers by the Cowboys in 1985 and Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb by the Giants in 2007.

Both the Colts and Cardinals ended up the 1980 season with 7-9 records. While Jones went on to have a solid season - he established career highs for pass attempts (446), completions (248) and yards (3134) - it wasn’t enough to lift the Colts above mediocrity. And while the Cards received credit for an improved and more consistent defense, they were not contenders – but for one game, they achieved a spot in the record book.

October 25, 2009

1964: Jim Marshall Runs the Wrong Way

Defensive End Jim Marshall had a long and outstanding career. After his rookie season with Cleveland in 1960, he joined the expansion Minnesota Vikings and was a defensive mainstay for the next 19 years, going to the Pro Bowl twice and receiving 2nd team All-NFL recognition on three occasions. At the time of his retirement following the 1979 season, he was pro football’s all-time iron man, having played in 282 consecutive games (a record since broken by a punter, Jeff Feagles). But for one play in one game, he became the pro football equivalent of college’s Roy Riegels, the University of California center who recovered a fumble in the 1929 Rose Bowl and proceeded to run 60 yards in the wrong direction.

The Vikings were playing the 49ers at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium on October 25, 1964. In the fourth quarter, the Niners had the ball with Minnesota leading by a score of 27-17. Quarterback George Mira fired a pass to Billy Kilmer, normally a QB but playing halfback in this instance. Hit hard, Kilmer fumbled and Marshall alertly scooped up the ball and took off toward the goal line, 66 yards away. Unfortunately for him, he had gotten turned around and lost his sense of direction.

San Francisco center Bruce Bosley trailed the play, thinking at first that Marshall might try and loop back in the right direction. He was the first player to greet Marshall after he crossed the goal line and tossed the ball away, assuring a two-point safety for the 49ers. “Thanks a lot, we can use more like that”, said Bosley to the stunned defensive end.

Fortunately for Marshall, his miscue didn’t lose the game for the Vikings. In fact, he accounted for a sack and forced fumble that helped seal the win. San Francisco managed only a 47-yard Tommy Davis field goal in the remaining time and the final score was 27-22.

Minnesota went on to an 8-5-1 record for the first winning season in the franchise’s history. Jim Marshall went on to have many better days. But his wrong-way run, resulting in a 66-yard safety, remains a significant footnote to pro football history.

October 24, 2009

Introduction: Franklin Field Memories

Welcome to “Today in Pro Football History”. This site springs from a life-long interest in pro football and its history (my curse in life is the need to delve into the background of anything that interests me). Both my dad and older brother were huge fans and so my interest developed at an early age. The 1964 pro football season, when I was in third grade, was the first that I followed – I might not have been a very sophisticated fan at that point, but I was enthusiastic! Dad was impressed enough to add me to the family’s season ticket package for the 1965 Philadelphia Eagles season, and some of my favorite childhood memories are of making the trip to Franklin Field to watch the Eagles play – granted, they were a poor team back then, and I got used to watching a lot of losing football, but the memories are vivid nonetheless.

I also got to see a lot of outstanding players of that period. While I had my favorites on the Eagles, such as Timmy Brown, Ben Hawkins, and Tom Woodeshick, I saw great players from other teams including Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Gale Sayers, Jim Taylor (albeit with the Saints in his last season), Bobby Mitchell, Fran Tarkenton, Bob Hayes, and a host of others who have long since passed into pro football’s history and record books.

With this blog, I am looking to share some of the interesting moments in pro football history – some significant, others far less so but still a part of the overall story. I won’t restrict myself to the NFL, but of course to the pre-merger AFL, the AFLs that existed before that, the AAFC of the 1940s, the World Football League of 1974-75, and the USFL. For the time being, I will be sticking to US-based leagues, not because of any prejudice against the Canadian Football League but because historical information about the CFL is harder to come by. At least initially I will be sticking to one event each day, so that will also limit the scope.

I hope that this site can be informative and interesting to casual fans and serious pro football historians alike. I most certainly don’t claim to be the repository of all knowledge regarding the history of the game and am very open to feedback and suggestions. I will try and update daily, but I’m just one person and make no guarantees that there won’t be interruptions from time to time. I’ll do my best to minimize them.

There will occasionally be a “List of the Day” in place of an event, especially during the offseason, on days that don’t contain many events of interest (or just for a change of pace).

So much for the pre-game introduction, if you will. The entry for tomorrow (October 25) will kick off the “Today in Pro Football History” format. I hope you’ll check back often to see how the game is going!