November 30, 2009

1959: Joe Foss Named Commissioner of AFL

The last week of November 1959 was a tumultuous one for the fledgling American Football League as it prepared to take the field for the 1960 season. The first draft of college talent was held on the 23rd, in order to get a head start against the established NFL. However, as the AFL owners met in Minneapolis, newspapers reported that the ownership group of the franchise slated to play in that city had been successfully wooed by the older league to become an expansion franchise for 1961. While the defection of the Minnesota franchise to the NFL didn’t become official until January of 1960 (it was replaced by Oakland), it was hardly the type of publicity that the new league was looking for.

On November 30, it was announced that Joe Foss would be the AFL’s commissioner. There had been other names floated in the preceding months, most significantly Frank Leahy, the former Notre Dame coach, and Fritz Crisler, former coach and current athletic director at Michigan. Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner, had even been sounded out in the hopes that he would extend his reach over both leagues and thus avoid warfare between the two. Bell politely turned the AFL’s overture down, and it became a moot point when he died in October.

Foss, ironically enough, had first been sounded out by one of the Minneapolis group whom he encountered while staying at the same hotel during a league organizational meeting. Unlike the other candidates for the job, he had no background in football. However, he was a well-known figure with an impressive personal history: a World War II fighter pilot who shot down 26 enemy aircraft in four months and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and later a two-term Governor of South Dakota. A quintessential self-made man, he had a reputation for honesty, candor, and leadership that made up for his lack of previous involvement in the game.

Foss gave the AFL credibility, and proved to be an able administrator. He successfully concluded an all-important $36,000,000 television deal with NBC in 1964 and, when New York Titans owner Harry Wismer (a frequent Foss antagonist) was nearing bankruptcy, found a buyer for the team (a group headed by Sonny Werblin, who later also became a Foss antagonist).

While Foss was given a five-year contract extension following the 1961 season, he took his share of criticism and occasionally battled with each of the AFL’s owners. He invalidated a secret draft conducted in November of 1961, and on occasion fined owners and reviewed transactions (a deal with San Diego sending DE Earl Faison and DT Ernie Ladd to Houston was invalidated due to unspecified tampering by Oilers owner Bud Adams, who needless to say was infuriated). His frequent travels on behalf of the league often made him difficult to communicate with. And he took heat when an apparent deal to put an expansion team in Atlanta for the 1966 season was undercut by the NFL.

Foss resigned shortly before the merger agreement with the NFL was resolved in 1966 – he had advocated merging, but also didn’t want to see the league lose its identity.

In summing up, as well as explaining the timing of his resignation, Foss told Sports Illustrated, “Some owners became irritated because I would never be frightened or directed. I wouldn't call the owners and report to them all the time just to gain Brownie points…I guess I could have done a lot better job as commissioner as far as the owners and public are now concerned if I had stayed in my office and done public relations work. But that is not in my nature…It's time for me to take a rougher and bigger job. I was getting tired of looking at placid waters. Now that the league is prospering, I'm ready to move on. My mission is accomplished."

Al Davis, the head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, succeeded Foss as commissioner. His reign was short – the merger was announced a few months later – and he returned to the Raiders as Managing General Partner.

Foss went on to host two syndicated television shows for outdoorsmen and was later president of the National Rifle Association. He didn’t return to the world of pro football, but his steady leadership in the AFL’s early days played a part in that league’s eventual success.

November 29, 2009

1987: Cunningham & Eagles Withstand Patriots Comeback to Win in Overtime

Quarterback Tom Ramsey didn’t have much of an NFL career, lasting just four seasons as a backup for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts after coming over from the USFL. Injuries to Steve Grogan and Tony Eason put Ramsey in the starting lineup for three games in 1987, and in one, at Sullivan Stadium against the visiting Philadelphia Eagles on November 29, 1987, he passed for just over 400 yards and rallied the team to force overtime.

The Patriots stood at 5-5 while the Eagles were 4-6 coming into the contest. Philadelphia took a 17-7 lead in the first half, thanks to a Paul McFadden field goal, a 61-yard pass play from QB Randall Cunningham to WR Mike Quick, and a one-yard Cunningham bootleg.

While ex-Eagle Tony Franklin kicked a 21-yard field goal to narrow the score in the second quarter, the Eagles extended their lead to 24-10 in the third quarter with a one-yard run by FB Anthony Toney. Early in the fourth quarter it seemed as though Philadelphia would cruise to an easy win when Cunningham hit Quick for another score, this one covering 29 yards.

But Ramsey rallied the Patriots in the fourth quarter, completing 15 of 24 passes for 157 yards in the final period. He threw touchdown passes of 13 yards to WR Stanley Morgan and three yards to TE Willie Scott to narrow the margin to 31-24. With 1:05 remaining, Ramsey tied the game with a one-yard rush. New England got the ball back and nearly won the game in regulation, but a fumbled hold on an attempted field goal caused Franklin to miss from just 31 yards out to send the game into overtime.

Both teams missed field goals in the OT period, first the Patriots with Franklin’s 46-yard attempt falling short and then McFadden failed after the Eagles drove to the New England 22 yard line. The game finally turned on a forced fumble by Eagles FS Terry Hoage (who had an outstanding overall performance) on Patriots FB Mosi Tatupu that was recovered by LB Garry Cobb at the New England 39. Four plays later, McFadden redeemed himself by kicking the game-winning 38-yard field goal with 2:44 left to play.

Overall in defeat, Ramsey completed 34 of 53 passes for 402 yards and three touchdowns, against two interceptions. Considering that he threw for just 898 yards and 6 TDs for the season (and for that matter, 1285 yards and 7 scores in his NFL career), it was an amazing performance. He became just the fourth quarterback in team history to reach the 400-yard passing mark in a game.

RB Tony Collins caught 11 passes for 100 yards with a TD to lead the Patriots pass receivers, while the unfortunate Tatupu was the top ground gainer with 58 yards on 14 carries.

For the Eagles, Cunningham passed 31 times, completing 18, for 314 yards with the two scoring throws and one picked off. WR Quick, the recipient of the two TD passes, had 5 pass receptions for 121 yards. TE John Spagnola also caught 5 passes, for 58 yards. FB Toney, usually better known for his blocking than ball carrying, led all rushers with a career-high 123 yards on 24 carries with the one TD.

It was a breakout year for Randall Cunningham, who passed for 2786 yards and 23 touchdowns, and also ran for 505 yards. Mike Quick went to the Pro Bowl for the fifth consecutive season, catching 46 passes for 790 yards with 11 TDs.

The Eagles, a team on the rise under second-year Head Coach Buddy Ryan, ended the strike-shortened season with a 7-8 record (they were 7-5 in non-replacement player games), tied for third in the NFC East. New England, which used five quarterbacks during the season, concluded at 8-7 and tied for second in the AFC East.

November 28, 2009

1929: Ernie Nevers Scores 40 Points vs. Bears

Perhaps no player has ever so dominated a game as fullback Ernie Nevers did on November 28, 1929 when he scored all 40 points for the Chicago Cardinals in a Thanksgiving Day matchup at Comiskey Park against the usually more successful crosstown rivals, the Chicago Bears.

Nevers was an outstanding all-around athlete (he also played baseball and basketball professionally, although not nearly as successfully) who played his college football under legendary coach Pop Warner at Stanford and entered the NFL in 1926. After two years with the Duluth Eskimos, he was forced to sit out the 1928 season with an injury and then joined the Cardinals. In this era of smaller rosters and less specialization, the 210-pound, 26-year-old star was not only the starting fullback, but the placekicker, punter, and a linebacker as well.

The weather for the game against the Bears was bitterly cold, causing the field to be frozen and footing less than ideal. Six minutes into the first quarter, Nevers scored his first touchdown on a 20-yard run, but was wide on the PAT attempt. He plunged five yards for another before the opening quarter was done, and this time was successful on the extra point. Nevers scored another seven points with a six-yard TD and successful PAT in the second quarter to give the Cardinals a 20-0 lead.

The second half was more of the same: three Nevers touchdown runs followed by two successful Nevers extra points; another 20-point half. When it was over, the Cardinals had beaten the Bears soundly, 40-6. Nevers pulled himself out of the game with about five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and received a tremendous ovation from the crowd.

The six touchdowns remain the single-game record, since tied by Dub Jones of the Browns in 1951 and Gale Sayers of the Bears in 1965. However, Nevers remains the only player to score all six by rushing, and his 40 points are still the most ever accumulated by a player in a game; it is the oldest NFL record still unbroken.

Nevers had also scored all of the Cardinals’ points in the previous week’s game against the Dayton Triangles, a 19-0 win, so while it doesn’t show up in the record books, he actually scored 59 consecutive points for his team.

As it was, the Cardinals finished with a 6-6-1 record for fourth place in the twelve-team NFL. Ernie Nevers played a total of five years, taking a great physical toll – he was not an elusive outside dasher like his contemporary, Red Grange, but a straight-ahead inside runner who was also a rugged linebacker on defense. However, he was a first team All-NFL selection in all five seasons and, in 1963, became a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

November 27, 2009

1966: Redskins Defeat Giants 72-41 in Highest Scoring NFL Game

The New York Giants team that played the Washington Redskins at DC Stadium on November 27, 1966 was far below the caliber of the Giants teams that had won three consecutive Eastern Conference titles from 1961-63. For that matter, it was far less impressive than the squad that finished 7-7 in 1965.

The Giants, under Head Coach Allie Sherman, stood at 1-8-1 coming into the game, with the only win having come over the Redskins at Yankee Stadium five weeks earlier. Washington was 5-6 after having lost the last three contests under first year Head Coach Otto Graham, the Hall of Fame quarterback.

What transpired was a thoroughly wild game, filled with turnovers and big plays. The final score was 72-41, the highest total in NFL history at 113 points. Redskins HB A.D. Whitfield had three touchdowns on the day, leading all players, including a 63-yard run in the first quarter plus a one-yard run and five-yard pass reception from QB Sonny Jurgensen that started the scoring onslaught. Rookie safety Brig Owens scored two TDs for Washington, on a 62-yard fumble recovery in the second quarter and 60-yard interception return in the fourth quarter. Split end Charley Taylor also added two TDs to the Redskins total, on passes covering 32 and 74 yards from Jurgensen. The special teams contributed a touchdown as DB Rickie Harris ran a punt back 52 yards in the fourth quarter.

31-year-old flanker Bobby Mitchell, who hadn’t played running back since leaving Cleveland for Washington after the 1961 season, got in on the action when Coach Graham told him to play halfback (against his wishes). The second time he carried the ball, he ran 45 yards for a score.

The team statistics were surprisingly even. In fact, the Giants outgained the Redskins (389 total yards to 341) and had more first downs (25-16). Washington led 34-14 at the half, and yet had -5 net passing yards (at that point Jurgensen had completed just four of nine passes for a mere five yards). But turnovers continually put the Giants in a hole. They turned the ball over six times, five of them by interceptions, with the fumble recovery and one of the interceptions by Owens (he had three) directly leading to scores and three of the pickoffs giving the offense good field position for short scoring drives.

All in all, Jurgensen recovered from the poor first half to put up respectable numbers, if rather ordinary (for him), completing 10 of 16 passes for 145 yards with three TDs and no interceptions (backup Dick Shiner had his lone pass picked off). Whitfield, not surprisingly, was the top rusher with 74 yards on just six carries. Mitchell was second with 54 yards on his two rushes. The eccentric HB Joe Don Looney had the most carries, 10, and gained 46 yards, including a nine-yard score. Charley Taylor accounted for most of the pass receiving offense, with six catches for 124 yards and the two TDs.

As for the Giants, Gary Wood and Tom Kennedy split the quarterback duties. Kennedy completed 13 of 21 passes for 165 yards with a TD and three interceptions, while Wood was successful on 7 of 12 passes for 146 yards with two touchdowns and two picked off. Wood’s two TD passes provided the big plays for New York; they covered 41 yards to HB Joe Morrison and 50 yards to the speedy split end, Homer Jones. Three Giants had over 80 yards receiving – Morrison, with 98 on four catches; Jones, who had 85 yards on a team-leading 6 receptions; and TE Aaron Thomas, who accumulated 82 yards on 4 catches including a touchdown.

Washington placekicker Charlie Gogolak (pictured) tied a record with nine extra points (he missed one), while his brother Pete, kicking for the Giants, added another five. He also topped off the scoring with a controversial 29-yard field goal with the Redskins leading 69-41 with seven seconds left in the game.

The Giants surrendered the ball on their own 23 yard line after QB Kennedy threw the ball away on a fourth down pass, having lost track of the downs (not that it mattered at that point). LB Sam Huff, the Redskins defensive captain, shouted for the field goal team to go in (guard Vince Promuto also claimed to have done likewise). Huff still harbored bad feelings toward the Giants for the trade that sent him to Washington after the 1963 season, while Promuto, a native New Yorker who had been with the Redskins since 1960, had endured too many games early in his career when the Giants, in their contending years, had run up big scores. It was payback time, and there were Washington players who wanted to exact every bit of revenge that they could. Regardless of who called for the coup-de-grace field goal, it allowed the Redskins to pass the 70 points scored by the Rams in a 1950 game and lay claim to the highest total in a regular season contest.

It was the ultimate humiliation for the Giants, who were on the way to the bottom of the Eastern Conference in ’66, finishing with a franchise-worst 1-12-1 record. Washington concluded the season at 7-7, putting them in fifth place in the East.

While this was not one of his better passing days, Sonny Jurgensen ended up leading the NFL in passing attempts (436) and completions (254) as well as yards (3209). Charley Taylor led the league in pass receptions for the first of two consecutive years with 72. Charlie Gogolak went over the 100-yard scoring mark, ranking third in the NFL with 105 points and 22 field goals. Homer Jones of the Giants had an outstanding season for a terrible team, catching 48 passes for 1044 yards (an average gain of 21.8) with 8 TDs.

November 26, 2009

1925: Red Grange Debuts With Bears

The degree to which halfback Harold “Red” Grange enhanced the stature of the young NFL can be debated, but there is no question that he had been a huge college talent at the University of Illinois, with his speed and outstanding open field running ability, and was a major drawing card when he went professional with the Chicago Bears. Pro football was still largely a Midwestern small-town phenomenon in the mid-20s and it was by no means assured that top college players would turn professional, nor was it encouraged – Grange’s coach at Illinois, Bob Zuppke, warned him away from it.

But through the efforts of his agent, C.C. “Cash & Carry” Pyle, and the Chicago Bears, who weren’t yet restrained by the need to wait for a draft of college talent, Grange went from college to pro player quite literally in the same weekend. On a Saturday, he played his final college game against Ohio State in Columbus, gaining 235 total yards and intercepting a pass on the final play to preserve a 14-9 Illinois win. The next day he was sitting on the Chicago Bears’ bench, having signed a contract that guaranteed him $3000 a game (a staggering amount for the time – per game salaries typically ranged from around $50 to $400) against a cut of the gate receipts.

Grange didn’t play in that first game, but he did play five days later at Wrigley Field on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1925 against the crosstown rival Chicago Cardinals. 36,000 fans were on hand for his debut, the largest crowd up to that time to witness a pro football game.

Grange didn’t do much in his first appearance; Paddy Driscoll, the halfback who also handled the punting for the Cardinals, did an admirable job of kicking away from the player known as the Galloping Ghost. He gained 36 yards rushing in all and failed to complete any of his six passes, although he did make an interception deep in his own territory, and the Bears and Cardinals deadlocked in a scoreless tie. As Driscoll put it afterward, “Kicking to Grange is like grooving one to Babe Ruth. It was a question which of us would look bad – Grange or Driscoll. I decided it would not be Paddy.”

The Bears played one more scheduled game, a 14-13 win over the Columbus Tigers in front of 28,000 on a snowy day, with Grange accumulating 140 total yards and throwing a 37-yard touchdown pass to HB Laurie Walquist. They finished with a 9-5-3 record, in seventh place in the 20-team NFL. But they weren’t quite done yet.

Grange and the Bears headed out on the first of two grueling barnstorming tours in which they played eight games in 12 days, starting in St. Louis on December 3 against a team called the Donnelly Stars and ending back in Chicago on December 13 against the New York Giants. The schedule was brutal, especially since the squad numbered just 18 players and they (other than Grange) had already put in a full season. Turnout ranged from 5000 in St. Louis (Bears 39, Donnelly Stars 6), Washington (Bears 19, Washington All-Stars 0), and Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh All-Stars 24, Bears 0) to 65,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York (Bears 19, New York Giants 7).

The Galloping Ghost started strong, scoring four TDs and running for 86 yards against the Donnelly Stars and putting on a solid all-purpose performance before the large crowd in New York with 53 yards on 11 carries, 23 yards on a pass reception, and a 35-yard interception return for a score. However, wear and tear had an effect, especially a lingering arm injury suffered against the Giants. Grange was booed for subpar performance while playing hurt in the next three games and didn’t play at all in the final two (9000 tickets were turned in for refunds in Detroit as a result). While some of the games were mismatches, others were brutal affairs against teams gunning for the Bears in general and Grange in particular. The Bears staggered through with a 4-4 record.

A second tour ran from December 25 in Coral Gables, Florida (against the Coral Gables Collegians, who held the Bears to a 7-0 win) until January 31, 1926 in Seattle (an easy 34-0 victory for the Bears over the Washington All-Stars). The Bears went 8-1 and drew the largest crowd in Los Angeles (75,000) for a 17-7 win over the Los Angeles Tigers. The pace was more reasonable, Grange stayed healthy and, while not up to the standards of his spectacular college performances, played well.

The Bears certainly squeezed all the money and publicity they could get out of the star halfback, but Grange and Pyle sought to squeeze back for 1926 – they demanded a one-third ownership of the franchise. George Halas, the co-owner, head coach, and still an active player, refused, and Grange not only left the Bears but, with Pyle, started a rival league. It was the first to be called the American Football League, with Grange playing for the New York franchise, and it folded after a year. The Galloping Ghost would eventually return to the Bears in 1929, after a knee injury had robbed him of his elusiveness as a runner, and he stayed until 1934, more noted by this point for his play in the defensive backfield. But in 1925, he certainly kept pro football in the headlines and spurred interest across the country.

November 25, 2009

1993: Dolphins Top Cowboys Thanks to Leon Lett’s Miscue

The weather was hardly conducive to football on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1993 as the Dallas Cowboys (7-3) hosted the Miami Dolphins (8-2) at Texas Stadium. The temperature was below freezing (well below when factoring in the wind chill) and a wintery mix of precipitation caused the field to be covered with a layer of snow. Needless to say, footing was unsure at best.

The Dolphins scored first on a 77-yard run by FB Keith Byars to take a 7-0 lead. Rookie WR Kevin Williams responded for the Cowboys with two second quarter touchdowns, first on a four-yard pass from QB Troy Aikman to culminate a 12-play, 74-yard possession and then with a 64-yard punt return just before halftime.

Dolphins placekicker Pete Stoyanovich narrowed the Dallas lead to 14-13 with a pair of field goals in the second half. Cowboys safety James Washington forced a fumble by Miami RB Terry Kirby on his own 30 yard line with just over four minutes to play, but Dallas was unable to capitalize when a field goal that would have provided a four-point cushion was missed.

However, when Dallas DE Jimmie Jones blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt by Stoyanovich in the final seconds of the game, it appeared that the Cowboys would prevail. But as the ball skidded down the field, Dallas DT Leon Lett attempted to recover it at the seven yard line and failed; Dolphins C Jeff Dellenbach fell on it at the one. Miami had possession; had Lett not touched the ball, it would have gone over to the Cowboys. The Dolphins made the most of the reprieve and Stoyanovich kicked a 19-yard field goal on the next play to give Miami a 16-14 win.

Byars was the star on offense for Miami, gaining 77 yards on six rushes and catching 7 passes for 80 yards. Kirby also caught 7 passes, for 76 yards, while WR Mark Ingram had the most receiving yards for the victors with 85 on three receptions. QB Steve DeBerg completed 24 of 41 passes for 287 yards; while two of them were intercepted, his performance under the conditions was solid.

On a day that was difficult for the passing game, Troy Aikman completed 28 of 43 passes for Dallas, accumulating 181 yards with a TD and an interception. RB Emmitt Smith was slowed by a thigh injury and gained just 51 yards on 16 carries; he split time with Lincoln Coleman, who led the team with 57 yards on 10 rushes. FB Darryl Johnston was the top receiver with 11 catches for 75 yards; Smith caught another 9 out of the backfield for 46 yards.

Afterward Dallas Head Coach Jimmy Johnson said “This was a very disappointing loss. In fact, I don't know whether I've ever had a loss that hurts like this one right now…The play by Lett, it was a mistake and we all make 'em and it's part of the game. There were hundreds of mistakes made in the ball game before that. It just so happens that that came at the end and it will be remembered as the one that cost us the ball game."

Lett’s miscue may have provided the Dolphins with a fortuitous win and the Cowboys a jarring loss, but the fortunes of the teams diverged from there. While the loss was the second in a row for Dallas, the Cowboys didn’t lose again as they finished atop the NFC East with a 12-4 record and went on to defeat Buffalo in the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year. Miami came out of the game with the league’s best record at 9-2, but lost the remaining five games to finish at 9-7, in second place in the AFC East and out of the playoffs.

As for Leon Lett himself, the error against the Dolphins, combined with his return of a fumble recovery for an apparent touchdown in the previous year’s Super Bowl, only to slow up, prematurely begin his celebration, and as a result have Bills WR Don Beebe knock the ball out of his hand for a touchback, made him the subject of a great deal of ridicule. However, he remained with the Cowboys for another seven seasons and was selected to the Pro Bowl twice, certainly making up for the early mistakes.

November 24, 2009

1957: Rookie Jim Brown Rushes for 237 Yards vs. Rams

Cleveland Browns Head Coach Paul Brown had gone into the 1957 draft with the hope of picking Purdue quarterback Len Dawson. Without retired star QB Otto Graham, the Browns went 5-7 in 1956 - the first losing season in team history. Getting a replacement seemed a priority.

However, the Pittsburgh Steelers snagged Dawson with the fifth pick in the first round, and with the sixth Brown chose Jim Brown, the star running back from Syracuse, instead (who else was chosen ahead of Brown? In order: Paul Hornung, Notre Dame QB, by Green Bay; Jon Arnett, halfback from USC, a local star by the LA Rams; John Brodie, Stanford QB, by the 49ers; and Ron Kramer, end from Michigan, also by the Packers). It didn’t take Paul Brown long to realize that he had something special in Jim Brown - after the rookie ran 40 yards for a touchdown against Pittsburgh in the second preseason game, Coach Brown called him over and said simply, “you’re my fullback”.

Jim Brown’s emergence during his rookie season was steady. After eight games, he had run the ball 130 times for 532 yards (4.1-yard average) and four touchdowns. His first hundred-yard rushing day had come three weeks before against Washington. In the ninth game, on November 24, he gave his first significant evidence of greatness.

The Browns were 6-1-1 as they faced the Los Angeles Rams (4-4) at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Brown scored his first TD of the day, a 69-yard run, in the second quarter to stake the Browns to a 14-7 lead. The Rams pulled ahead and were leading in the third quarter by 28-17 after DT Art Hauser recovered a Cleveland fumble and ran it 29 yards for a score.

It was virtually all Browns after that, however, and Jim Brown scored on three more short touchdown runs to give him four on the day. More significantly, he set a new NFL record with 237 yards on 31 carries as the Browns defeated the Rams, 45-31.

Cleveland closed out the season at 9-2-1, handily returning to the top of the Eastern Conference standings although losing decisively to Detroit in the NFL Championship game. The Rams were 6-6 on the year, finishing fourth in the Western Conference.

Jim Brown led the league in rushing with 942 yards on 202 attempts for a healthy 4.7-yard average gain and nine touchdowns (he also had a TD on a pass reception) – while the big game against the Rams put him out of reach, the runner-up, Rick Casares of the Bears, was 242 yards behind with an even 700 yards. Brown was selected as not only NFL Rookie of the Year, but as MVP by the Associated Press and The Sporting News as well. It was only a sneak preview of sorts; he established a whole new set of rushing standards while leading the league in eight of his nine seasons.

His performance was certainly the key to the team’s success in ’57 – Paul Brown’s solution to the quarterback dilemma was to use nondescript veteran Tommy O’Connell, who statistically was the best passer in the NFL that year but only threw the ball 110 times before an injury finished his regular season two weeks after the Rams game (he returned for the championship contest); rookie Milt Plum filled in and inherited the starting job in 1958.

As a footnote, Len Dawson’s road to the Hall of Fame would be less direct than Jim Brown’s. He threw just 17 passes in three seasons in Pittsburgh before Paul Brown finally acquired him for the Browns. Stuck behind Plum, he appeared to be a flop when he tossed 28 passes in two years and was granted his release so he could join the Dallas Texans of the AFL in 1962; there he was re-united with his former backfield coach at Purdue, Hank Stram. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

November 23, 2009

1995: Scott Mitchell Leads Lions Past Vikings with 410 Yards and 4 TD Passes

Quarterback Scott Mitchell had shown enough potential as a backup to Dan Marino in Miami to warrant a great deal of interest when he became a free agent after the 1993 season. The Detroit Lions won the bidding war for his services, awarding him a three-year contract worth $11 million dollars (he would stay for five seasons). At 6’6” and 240 pounds, with a strong and accurate arm, he had the tools but had problems with consistency, durability, and command of the offense during 1994.

Mitchell and the Lions got off to a 3-6 start in ’95, but then caught fire. On November 23 the record stood at 5-6 as the Minnesota Vikings (6-5) arrived for a Thanksgiving Day matchup at the Pontiac Silverdome. Detroit scored the first two touchdowns on passes from Mitchell to WR Brett Perriman covering 2 and 20 yards respectively. After the Vikings countered with a 55-yard TD pass play from QB Warren Moon to WR Jake Reed, the Lions extended their lead to 21-7 in the second quarter with Mitchell’s third TD pass of 16 yards to WR Johnnie Morton.

The second quarter turned wild as the Vikings scored two non-offensive touchdowns to knot the score at 21-21. First, WR David Palmer returned a punt 74 yards and then free safety Orlando Thomas recovered a fumble and ran it 17 yards into the end zone. The Lions re-took the lead, 24-21, thanks to a 32-yard Jason Hanson field goal, but Minnesota was back in front at the half, 28-24, due to a 10-yard Moon touchdown pass to WR Cris Carter.

After the teams traded field goals in the third quarter, Mitchell put the Lions in the lead with a 27-yard pass to WR Herman Moore that made the score 34-31. When RB Barry Sanders ran 50 yards for a touchdown with 5:18 left in the game to give Detroit a ten-point margin (41-31), it appeared that the Lions would prevail, but the result remained in doubt as Moon connected with Carter again to cut the lead to three points. A 39-yard Hanson field goal provided the final margin of the 44-38 game, but it still came down to Detroit intercepting a Moon desperation pass in the end zone on the last play to nail down the win once and for all.

In all, it was a wild offensive show as both teams combined for 919 total yards; the Lions accounted for 534 of that total. Mitchell set a new Detroit single-game passing yardage record (since broken) with 410 as he completed 30 of 45 passes. Four of them went for touchdowns, while one was intercepted. Perriman led all receivers with 12 receptions and was one of three Lions receivers to accumulate over a hundred yards, with 153. Moore had 127 yards on his 8 catches and Morton contributed 102 on 7 receptions. The ground game contributed significantly as well thanks to Sanders rushing for 138 yards on 24 carries (virtually all of which came in the second half).

For the Vikings, Warren Moon completed 30 of 47 passes for 384 yards with three TDs and two interceptions. RB Amp Lee caught the most passes with 9 for 92 yards, while WR Reed accumulated the most yards with 149 on his 6 receptions. Minnesota didn’t do as much on the ground, however, rushing for just 34 yards on 15 attempts.

It was the third of seven consecutive wins to close out the regular season for the Lions as they finished at 10-6 for second place in the NFC Central and a wild card berth; they were embarrassed by the Eagles in the first round by a score of 58-37. Minnesota ended up in fourth place in the division with an 8-8 record.

For Scott Mitchell, it was a career year as he achieved highs in pass attempts (583), completions (346), completion percentage (59.3), passing yards (4338), TD passes (32), and passer rating (92.3); the yardage and TD totals were also team records. While the season accented his strengths, his weaknesses also became apparent, especially in the postseason loss when he was benched in favor of backup Don Majkowski after throwing four interceptions.

Mitchell was helped a great deal by his outstanding receiving corps, especially when they went to three wide receivers as their basic offense. Herman Moore led the NFL with a then-record 123 receptions for 1686 yards and 14 touchdowns. Brett Perriman hauled in 108 passes for 1488 yards and another 9 scores; in combination with Moore, the 231 receptions were a record for two teammates. Johnnie Morton, in his second year, was hardly a slouch with 44 catches for 590 yards and 8 TDs, while Barry Sanders grabbed another 48 passes for 398 yards and a touchdown.

Of course, Sanders contributed most significantly on the ground, reaching the thousand-yard mark for the seventh time in as many seasons with an even 1500 yards on 314 carries with 11 TDs.

While Mitchell never again approached his 1995 numbers and would ultimately be considered a disappointment in Detroit, it is a testament to the other key offensive contributors that they expanded on their performances. Moore caught over a hundred passes in the next two seasons and again led the league in 1997. Morton stepped up and had three thousand-yard receiving seasons from 1997 to ’99 and four in five years. Perriman caught 94 passes for 1021 yards in ’96, although his career was essentially over after that. Sanders, arguably the best running back of his era, never had less than a thousand yards rushing in any of his ten seasons, and reached the 2000-yard mark in 1997.

November 22, 2009

1945: Jim Benton Catches 10 Passes for 303 Yards vs. Lions

End Jim Benton had been a solid receiver for the Cleveland Rams (and one season with the Chicago Bears) since coming into the league in 1938, when he led the league in yards per reception (19.9 on 21 catches). The Rams had not been a winning team, with a 5-5-1 record in 1939 their best since joining the NFL in 1937. But both Benton and the Rams rose to new heights in 1945.

By the time the Rams met up with the Detroit Lions on November 22 for a Thanksgiving showdown at Briggs Stadium, they were sporting a 7-1 record under the guidance of Head Coach Adam Walsh. The Lions were 6-2 and, with just one more week to play in the ten-game season, control of the Western Division was at stake.

Benton had caught 27 passes for 645 yards, resulting in a very healthy 23.9-yard average, with six touchdowns and three hundred-yard games. Coach Walsh had installed the T-formation, and the offense benefited from the arrival of rookie QB Bob Waterfield from UCLA to run it. The 6’3”, 200-pound Benton was his favorite target.

Earlier in the season, Green Bay’s Don Hutson had scored four TDs and accumulated 144 yards against the Lions, which had exposed a deficiency in their pass defense. The Rams took advantage. They broke out to a 21-7 lead in the first half and went on to win 28-21. Benton scored on a 70-yard touchdown pass from Waterfield in the second quarter and, when it was all done, had caught 10 passes for 303 yards.

The 303 yards not only set a new single-game pass receiving yardage record, but remained the NFL record for 40 years until broken by Stephone Paige of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1985 (Cloyce Box of the Lions came within a yard of the record in 1950). It was also the first occasion that any player had accumulated over 300 yards from scrimmage in an NFL game.

Benton accounted for virtually all of Cleveland’s passing yards – Waterfield in all completed 12 of 21 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns. A 17-yard throw to the other end, Steve Pritko, accounted for the second TD pass and most of the remaining yards that didn’t belong to Benton. The rookie quarterback’s showing was especially impressive because he was suffering from a painful rib injury and had been tightly wrapped up by the team’s trainer prior to the game.

With the win, the Rams clinched the West and won again in the season finale (with Benton chalking up his fifth hundred-yard receiving game of the year) to finish with a 9-1 record. They defeated the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship game, as Benton capped his outstanding year with 9 catches for 125 yards and a TD. Detroit remained the runner-up in the Western Division at 7-3.

It was typical throughout the season for the Rams to not throw often – they were actually the league’s top rushing team with 1714 yards – but they passed very effectively. Waterfield threw 171 passes, averaged 9.4 yards per attempt and tied for the lead in touchdown throws with 14.

Benton ended up catching 45 passes for 1067 yards (a 23.7-yard average) and eight touchdowns. The reception total put him two behind the league leader, Hutson; the yards led the NFL and made him the second pass receiver to reach the thousand-yard threshold in a season. The mark is all the more remarkable in that Benton played in just nine games, missing a contest against the Bears earlier in the season due to injury, so his per game average was a gaudy 118.6.

While Benton’s outstanding season came in the last year of World War II manpower shortages, he proved it was no fluke in 1946 by leading the league both in pass receptions (63) and yards (981). At this point he was now playing for the Los Angeles Rams; in spite of winning the championship, the team had lost some $50,000 and owner Dan Reeves moved the franchise to the West Coast.

November 21, 2009

1982: Jim McMahon Leads Bears Over Lions in First Pro Start

The Chicago Bears finished with a mediocre 6-10 record in 1981, and the 86-year-old owner, “Papa Bear” George Halas, asserted his authority one last time to change the direction of the team and try and recover some of the past glory of the Monsters of the Midway.

First, he rehired the defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan. Second, he replaced Head Coach Neill Armstrong with former star tight end Mike Ditka, who had been an assistant in Dallas and provided a very vivid link to the last Chicago championship team in 1963. And third, he and Ditka selected a quarterback in the first round of the 1982 draft, something the Bears had not done since 1951.

Jim McMahon had been a record-setting passer at Brigham Young. On the downside, he was just six feet tall, had a bad knee, and vision that had been impaired in a childhood accident. But his upside was that he had been operating in a sophisticated offense at BYU and showed tremendous potential.

The Bears started off with losses in the first two games. Veterans Vince Evans, the incumbent starter, and Bob Avellini had played at QB, although McMahon saw significant action in the second week. But then the season was interrupted by the eight-week player’s strike.

When the strike ended and NFL games resumed on November 21, 1982, McMahon was given his first starting assignment against the visiting Detroit Lions at Soldier Field. Things got off to a shaky start for the rookie as he threw two interceptions in the first quarter, one of which was returned for a touchdown by safety Ray Oldham. But McMahon brought the Bears back from a 14-3 deficit, first hitting WR Ken Margerum with an 11-yard TD pass in the second quarter and then TE Emery Moorehead on a 28-yard pass play that put Chicago in front, 17-14.

Detroit came back to tie the score with a 32-yard Eddie Murray field goal, but McMahon led the Bears on a drive that culminated in a game-winning field goal of 18 yards by John Roveto. The 20-17 win gave the Bears their first win of the season, Ditka his first victory as a head coach, and McMahon a win in his first start.

McMahon completed 16 of 27 passes for 233 yards with two TDs and three interceptions. FB Matt Suhey had the most receptions (6, for 46 yards) while Moorehead had the most receiving yards with 78 on his three catches, including the one TD. RB Walter Payton, who had been the team’s primary offensive weapon for the better part of seven years, had a typically solid performance with 87 rushing yards on 21 carries.

By contrast, QB Eric Hipple of the Lions completed just 15 of 32 pass attempts for 119 yards with a TD and two interceptions, and was sacked seven times for a loss of 62 yards – a testament to Ryan’s defense. Star RB Billy Sims gained just 67 yards on his 20 runs.

The Bears were still a work in progress and concluded the strike-shortened season with a 3-6 record. McMahon completed 120 of 210 passes (57.1 %) for 1501 yards, with 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. As modest as his numbers might appear, his passer rating of 79.9 was the best by a Chicago quarterback since 1965, the completion percentage was the second best in team history, and none of his last 105 passes were intercepted. He was selected to the NFL All-Rookie team. To be sure, the offensive line was a sieve and McMahon had to run far too often (the quarterbacks collectively were sacked a NFC-high 33 times).

McMahon would prove to be a successful quarterback for the Bears, if also a brittle and occasionally controversial one. But the pieces that Halas put in place in 1982 would culminate in a championship in 1985 (the “Papa Bear” wouldn’t live to see it – he died in 1983).

November 20, 2009

1966: Falcons Defeat Giants for Franchise’s First Win

The game at Yankee Stadium on November 20, 1966 between the New York Giants and visiting Atlanta Falcons was hardly a thrilling spectacle – the Falcons broke out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter and never fell behind. Nor was it significant in the standings, as Atlanta had yet to win a game (0-9) and the Giants were scarcely better (1-7-1). However, when the Falcons won by a score of 27-16, it was not only their first win of the season but the first in the history of the franchise (excluding the preseason).

Atlanta had flirted with the AFL, both as a potential expansion site or as a new home for the Denver Broncos. The Broncos stayed put, however, and the NFL pulled the rug from under the rival league by awarding a franchise to insurance executive Rankin Smith for the 1966 season (the AFL expanded to Miami instead).

The Falcons took the field under Head Coach Norb Hecker, who had been an assistant under Vince Lombardi at Green Bay. As was usually the case with expansion teams, it was made up largely of castoff veterans and young, unproven players. However, they drew well at the new Atlanta Stadium, averaging over 56,000 in attendance for each home game.

Following the usual formula for a new team, Hecker concentrated on defense in this first season, building around MLB Tommy Nobis, the overall first draft pick out of Texas. The offense was also directed by a rookie, QB Randy Johnson from Texas A&I. The team didn’t score much, but they had a couple of reliable, if plodding, running backs in Junior Coffey (pictured) and ex-Giant Ernie Wheelwright, and veteran flanker Alex Hawkins, who had previously been a reserve with the Colts.

Against New York, Atlanta scored on a nine-yard pass from Johnson to Wheelwright in the first quarter. The Giants responded with a 24-yard field goal by Pete Gogolak, but Johnson threw his second TD pass of the game, an eight-yarder to split end Vern Burke, to give the Falcons a lead of 13-3 at halftime (the PAT attempt failed).

It was Johnson to Wheelwright again in the third quarter, for a six-yard TD, before the Giants finally scored a touchdown on a three-yard pass from QB Tom Kennedy to the versatile Joe Morrison, playing at halfback. Johnson scored once more on a three-yard run in the fourth quarter. The Giants were able to come up with one more TD, a 12-yard run by Morrison (who led all rushers in the game with 91 yards on 17 carries), to close out the scoring (the extra point attempt was no good).

The 27 points were the most the Falcons had scored to date. Johnson had made good on 15 of 25 passes for 177 yards, with three touchdowns against one interception. Coffey led the running game with 64 yards on 16 carries, while the fullback Wheelwright carried 14 times for 51 yards and also led the team in receptions with 5 for 35 yards and two scores. TE Taz Anderson had the most receiving yards for Atlanta, with 47 on his two catches.

Atlanta went on to win two of the remaining three games to finish with a 3-11 record and become the first expansion team to not finish in last place; they were in seventh in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the 1-12-1 Giants. For the Giants, the loss was one of many low points on the way to the worst record in franchise history.

For the year, Johnson completed 129 of 295 passes (43.7 %) for 1795 yards with 12 TDs and 21 interceptions. Coffey had a respectable season, ranking ninth in the league with 722 yards rushing on 199 carries. Wheelwright added 458 yards on 121 attempts; both caught 15 passes apiece.

While the anticipation was great that the Falcons would improve on the 1966 showing in ’67, it was not to be – they regressed to 1-12-1.

November 19, 2009

1978: Giants Fumble Away Win to Eagles

For Eagles fans, it’s “the Miracle of the Meadowlands”. For Giants fans, it is more odiously referred to as “The Fumble”. By whatever name, it remains one of the most astounding plays to decide the outcome of a game in pro football history.

Philadelphia, in its third season under Head Coach Dick Vermeil, came into the November 19, 1978 matchup at Giants Stadium with a 6-5 record; New York was struggling at 5-6. The Giants broke out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to touchdown passes by QB Joe Pisarcik of 19 yards to RB Bobby Hammond and 30 yards to WR Johnny Perkins.

RB Wilbert Montgomery finally put the Eagles on the board in the second quarter with an eight-yard touchdown run, but the extra point was missed. Joe Danelo added a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter to extend New York’s lead to 17-6. FB Mike Hogan narrowed the score to 17-12 in the fourth quarter with a one-yard run, followed by another unsuccessful PAT attempt (with placekicker Nick Mike-Mayer on injured reserve, his punter-cum-placekicker replacement, Mike Michel, proved woefully inadequate).

It looked as though that would be the final score when a last-ditch Eagles drive ended with QB Ron Jaworski throwing his third interception of the day. The Giants took over on their own 21 yard line with just 1:23 left to play. Philadelphia had no time outs remaining, so it was just a matter of running out the clock. Fans began filing out of the stadium and Giants players on the sideline were beginning to celebrate.

On the first play, Pisarcik handed off to FB Larry Csonka for an 11-yard gain. On the next play, he took a knee and received some rough treatment from frustrated Eagles linebackers Frank LeMaster and Bill Bergey. The clock was down to 28 seconds as the Giants came up to the line again for what all assumed would be a final kneel-down by Pisarcik to end the game. The broadcasters for the telecast were making their parting comments and the credits were rolling down the screen.

But instead of taking a knee, instruction came from the offensive coordinator, Bob Gibson, to run the ball. While several Giants urged Pisarcik to ignore the call from the sideline and just kneel, the play proceeded. The snap was rushed and the quarterback never had control of the ball as he tried to hand it off to Csonka, instead hitting him in the hip. The ball bounced away from the sprawling Pisarcik, directly into the hands of Eagles CB Herman Edwards, who ran it 26 unmolested yards into the end zone.

Michel kicked the extra point and the final score was 19-17 in favor of Philadelphia. For Edwards, there was redemption since he had been badly beaten on one of the Giants’ touchdown passes. For the Eagles, it was a miraculous win that helped lift the team to a 9-7 record for the season and a wild card spot in the playoffs – the first postseason appearance since winning the 1960 championship (excluding the meaningless Playoff Bowl), and only the third season over .500 since then as well.

For the Giants, it also marked something of a turning point. Gibson was fired the next day (although the call resulting in the fumble was not given as the reason), and after New York finished out the season with three more losses in the last four games, Head Coach John McVay was let go as well. The Mara family, which owned the team, made a decision to hire a new general manager, who turned out to be George Young. A turnaround for the franchise in the 1980s would be forthcoming.

While the bizarre ending has long overshadowed the rest of the game, there were solid performances for the Eagles by RB Montgomery, who had 88 yards rushing on 22 carries with the one TD, and WR Harold Carmichael with five receptions for 105 yards.

The question of why the Giants ran the play has long been a subject of speculation and argument. Many Eagles believed that the rough handling of Pisarcik by either LeMaster or Bergey caused Gibson to send in a running play both to protect his quarterback and to give the offensive line one last chance to tee off on the Eagles defense. Others have suggested that bad feelings among some of the coaching staff caused Gibson to stubbornly insist on a running play.

Whatever the reason, the play long ago entered the realm of pro football lore. And it has left a lasting imprint on the game to this day – every time an offense is running out the clock and the quarterback is preparing to take a knee, a teammate is lined up about 10 yards behind the play, just in case the ball goes bouncing away.

November 18, 2009

1984: Greg Bell’s 206 Rushing Yards Spur Bills Upset of Cowboys

It had been a long and disappointing season in Buffalo as the winless Bills (0-11) prepared to take on the visiting Dallas Cowboys (7-4) at Rich Stadium on November 18, 1984. The Cowboys were tied with Washington atop the NFC East and couldn’t be blamed for believing that they had little to fear from the hapless Bills.

The Bills were a team in transition under Head Coach Kay Stephenson. The offense had been particularly disappointing, with the exception of rookie RB Greg Bell, replacing the talented Joe Cribbs who had jumped to the USFL. Bell had carried the ball 158 times for 646 yards thus far, a 4.1 average gain, with two hundred-yard performances. On this day he set the tone by taking off on an 85-yard scoring run on Buffalo’s first play from scrimmage. It would prove to be all the points the Bills would need.

The defense played inspired football, holding the Cowboys to just 78 rushing yards on 24 attempts (virtually all by RB Tony Dorsett, who had 70 yards on 17 carries). Dallas QB Gary Hogeboom completed fewer than half his passes (22 of 45) and the Bills intercepted him twice.

Buffalo missed opportunities to score twice more in the first half. Don Wilson returned a punt 34 yards to put the Bills in good field position, but the resulting field goal attempt failed due to a bad snap. LB Joe Azelby blocked a Danny White punt, but Bills QB Joe Ferguson promptly threw an interception that led to the only Dallas score of the game, a 20-yard Rafael Septien field goal that made it 7-3 at the half.

Thanks to Bell’s running, the Bills were able to control the ball for extended periods during the second half, including a total of 11:34 in the fourth quarter alone. A nine-play, 70-yard drive resulted in the only other touchdown of the day, fittingly scored by Bell on a four-yard pass from Ferguson. Safety Rod Kush and CB Brian Carpenter both intercepted Hogeboom passes to snuff out Dallas drives. The final score was 14-3 as Buffalo entered the win column.

Bell, the star of the game, ran for 206 yards on 27 carries and caught two passes for another 12. QB Ferguson had an ordinary performance, completing just 13 of 29 passes for 117 yards with a TD and two interceptions. WR Byron Franklin topped the Buffalo receivers in both receptions (6) and yards (55).

In the euphoric mood after the game, Bills DE Ben Williams said “this is kind of like our Super Bowl.” Owner Ralph Wilson added “I feel like we’re leading the league.” Meanwhile, Dorsett summed up the feeling of the stunned Cowboys by saying “I’m totally embarrassed…it’s total humiliation.”

The joy didn’t last long for the Bills – they lost decisively at Washington the next week, although they did win once more to the floundering Indianapolis Colts to conclude the season with a league-worst 2-14 record. However, they used the first overall pick in the 1985 draft to select Bruce Smith from Virginia Tech, who would become a bulwark at defensive end. The Cowboys split the remainder of their games and finished with a 9-7 record, which was the same as that of the Giants and Cardinals in the NFC East but, with tie-breakers applied, left them in fourth place and out of the postseason.

Greg Bell ended up compiling 1100 yards on 262 carries for the year with seven TDs, and caught 34 passes for 277 yards and another score. He was selected to the AFC Pro Bowl team.

November 17, 2009

1968: Raiders Stun Jets in the “Heidi Game”

The November 17, 1968 contest at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum between the host Raiders and visiting New York Jets (both with 7-2 records) was a key showdown between two of the strongest contenders for the AFL title. The game was televised nationally by NBC, with a starting time on the East Coast of 4 o’clock, and it certainly lived up to expectations as it was an exciting contest that was decided in the final seconds. However, the decision by the network to cut away to scheduled programming before the completion of the game is what gave it a special distinction in pro football history.

Oakland, in a battle for control of the Western Division with Kansas City, scored the first two touchdowns on passes from gunslinging QB Daryle Lamonica of 9 yards to split end Warren Wells and 48 yards to TE Billy Cannon. The Jets, in control of the Eastern Division, scored on two field goals by Jim Turner and a one-yard run by QB Joe Namath; the extra point attempt failed and Oakland held a 14-12 halftime lead.

New York pulled in front in the third quarter on a four-yard run by FB Bill Mathis, but the Raiders came back with a three-yard rushing TD by HB Charlie Smith. With a successful two-point conversion, the Raiders led 22-19 at the end of the third quarter.

Oakland was three yards away from another score as the fourth quarter started, but on the first play Smith fumbled the ball away to the Jets, who took full advantage. Namath hit flanker Don Maynard on a 47-yard pass play to midfield, and then passed to Maynard again for a 50-yard touchdown that put New York back in front, 26-22. When the Jets next got the ball back, they scored again, this time on a 12-yard field goal by Turner for a 29-22 advantage.

The Raiders were hardly done, though, and the “Mad Bomber” Lamonica passed for a 22-yard TD to flanker Fred Biletnikoff that tied the score at 29-29. In this back-and-forth struggle, the Jets responded with Jim Turner’s fourth field goal of the game, from 26 yards out, to re-take the lead at 32-29 with 1:05 remaining in the contest.

However, a behind-the-scenes drama involving NBC was about to pull the plug on the game for the fans in the Eastern time zone. The network had allotted three hours, from 4 o’clock until 7, for the game, at which point a heavily-promoted production of the children’s classic, “Heidi”, was to air. The game in Oakland was running long, however. With lots of passing and a total of 19 penalties (the Jets were called for five facemask infractions alone), it was fast approaching 7 o’clock in the East when the Raiders got the ball back.

There was plenty of head-scratching afterward as to who made the call at NBC to end game coverage and shift to “Heidi” at 7 o’clock, but what football fans in the East saw was a Lamonica to Smith pass for 20 yards, followed by a penalty on the Jets that put the ball on New York’s 43 yard line with 50 seconds to go. As the teams were about to run the next play, screens went dark and then to commercial, after which the opening to “Heidi” began to run.

There was pandemonium on the telephone lines, and even NBC President Julian Goodman’s anxious request to cut back to the game got lost as the switchboard in New York was overwhelmed by calls. While fans on the Pacific Coast were able to see the end of the game, the Eastern fans – in particular, the Jets fans in the New York City area – were left in the dark.

What did they miss? First, they missed Lamonica’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Charlie Smith (pictured) that covered 43 yards. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, the Jets fumbled and Raiders reserve running back Preston Ridlehuber grabbed it and fell into the end zone for yet another score which made the final tally 43-32 in favor of Oakland.

On the field, Lamonica had completed 21 of 34 passes for 311 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Fred Biletnikoff was the leading receiver for the Raiders with 7 catches for 120 yards and a score. On the New York side, Namath threw 37 passes and completed 19 of them for 381 yards with a TD and no pickoffs. Don Maynard was the pass receiving star, grabbing 10 passes for a club-record 228 yards and a touchdown.

Off the field, over an hour after the end of the game, NBC twice scrolled the score across the screen, which only angered the football fans all the more knowing that they had missed something significant, and, when the second crawl occurred during an especially dramatic moment during the program, managed to alienate the “Heidi” fans, too.

NBC President Goodman offered an apology the next day, and a new pro football/tv network policy took hold - while pulling away from games in progress had occurred previously, henceforth games would be shown until their completion.

The Oakland Raiders won the remainder of their games and finished the season at 12-2, tied for first in the Western Division with Kansas City. They defeated the Chiefs in the resulting playoff and faced the Jets, who also won the rest of their games while remaining easily in first place in the weaker Eastern Division with an 11-3 record, for the AFL championship. The Jets got their revenge for the loss in the “Heidi game”, winning 27-23 at Shea Stadium, and went on to face the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in a fateful Super Bowl encounter.

November 16, 2009

2003: Ball Control – and a Fake FG – Helps Colts Overcome Big Plays by Jets

The New York Jets were struggling with a 3-6 record as they took on the 7-2 Colts at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis on November 16, 2003. The Colts were coming off a loss to Jacksonville and were missing star wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who was out with a hamstring injury, while New York had won for the third time in five games at Oakland.

Following a 31-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt of the Colts, the Jets scored the first touchdown of the game on a 62-yard pass play from QB Chad Pennington to WR Jonathan Carter. However, the Colts came back with a TD pass of their own from QB Peyton Manning to WR Troy Walters that covered 46 yards. After two short scoring runs by RB Edgerrin James in the second quarter, with a Jets field goal in between, Indianapolis held a 24-10 lead at the half.

New York came back strong with three touchdowns in just over eight minutes in the third quarter, starting with WR Curtis Conway hauling in a 28-yard TD pass from Pennington. The Colts responded with James scoring his third short touchdown run of the day, but Carter returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a TD to again shorten the Indianapolis lead to 31-24. The game was tied when Jets WR Santana Moss scored on a pass play from Pennington that covered 48 yards.

Indianapolis drove to the Jets 21 yard line and went ahead to stay when punter Hunter Smith, the holder for placekicks, ran for a touchdown on a fake field goal attempt. Neither team scored in the fourth quarter as the Colts defense stiffened, and Manning finally settled the matter with a 35-yard pass to WR Reggie Wayne in a third and seven situation for a game-clinching first down with 1:46 remaining in the contest.

Showing the significance of big plays in keeping the Jets in the game, the Colts ran far more plays (77 to 34) for more yards (538 to 324) and controlled the ball far longer (38:52 to 21:08). Manning completed 27 of 36 passes for 401 yards and a TD, with none intercepted. The Colts had two receivers hit the 100-yard threshold, Reggie Wayne with 141 (on a team-leading 9 receptions) and TE Dallas Clark with an even 100 on five catches.

But while Manning had an outstanding game even with his best receiver on the sideline, it was Edgerrin James who helped the most to keep the Colts offense on the field (and the Jets offense off of it), running 36 times for 127 yards, including the three scores. James had complained in the previous week’s loss about a lack of carries, but workload wasn’t an issue in this contest. He also passed Lydell Mitchell’s franchise record of 5487 yards to become the all-time rushing leader for the Colts.

The Jets benefited most from Jonathan Carter’s 242 yards on six kickoff returns, including the one TD; when combined with his long scoring reception, his total yardage for the day came to 304. Chad Pennington had an efficient performance, completing 11 of 14 passes for 219 yards and three TDs, while RB Curtis Martin had 105 rushing yards on just 13 carries. Overall, New York averaged 9.4 yards per play.

“Defensively, we couldn’t get off the field enough times,” said a disappointed Jets Head Coach Herman Edwards afterward. Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy summed up his team’s win by saying “Championship teams find ways to win games differently…We've won 9-6 games, we've won games where we shut people down, we won today because we outscored them.”

Indianapolis ended up winning the AFC South with a 12-4 record and advanced to the conference championship, losing to New England. The Jets won three of their next four games and finished with a 6-10 record at the bottom of the AFC East along with Buffalo.

For the year, Peyton Manning led the NFL in passing yards (4267), completion percentage (67.0), and passes completed (379). Edgerrin James rushed 310 times for 1259 yards and 11 touchdowns, his third thousand-yard season and first since 2000.

November 15, 2009

1959: Cleveland’s Bobby Mitchell Runs for 232 Yards on 14 Carries

Bobby Mitchell played the first four seasons of his brilliant 11-year career as a halfback for the Cleveland Browns. During that time, while recognized for his speed in the open field, he typically played in the shadow of Jim Brown. But in one game in his second season, it was Mitchell outgaining Brown and very nearly breaking the great fullback’s single game rushing record.

On November 15, 1959 the Browns (5-2) played the Redskins (3-4) at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Mitchell had his biggest run of the day in the first quarter as he scored a 90-yard touchdown (the longest run from scrimmage in the NFL in ’59). While the Redskins managed to keep it close thanks to scoring runs by HB Dick James and FB John Olszewski that tied the score at 14-14 at the half, it was all Browns the rest of the way. Mitchell had scoring runs of five yards in the third quarter and 23 yards in the fourth as Cleveland cruised to a 31-17 win. Most significantly, Mitchell gained a total of 232 yards rushing – just five yards short of Jim Brown’s then-league record – on only 14 carries (a 16.6-yard average gain).

Mitchell’s performance overshadowed a 190-yard rushing day for Washington’s Olszewski (on 18 attempts with a long gain of 65 yards). Brown had just 40 yards on 16 carries, his lowest total of the year, which broke a string of four straight 100-yard games (he would be back over 100 in the next two games, and three of the last four).

Perhaps no game better pointed out the ability of the Brown/Mitchell tandem to confound opposing defenses. While Brown was clearly the dominant running back of his era (and arguably the greatest of all time), Mitchell could cause opposing teams to pay a price if they keyed too heavily on him. In 1959, the two combined for over 2000 yards (2072) and 19 TDs on the ground alone (Mitchell had four more scores on pass receptions plus one on a punt return). Together they averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

Individually, it was Jim Brown who led the NFL in rushing for the third consecutive season with 1329 yards on 290 attempts, with a 4.6 average gain and 14 touchdowns. Mitchell ranked fifth with his 743 yards on 131 carries for a 5.7-yard average gain and four TDs.

Not surprisingly, high average gains were typical of Mitchell during his years as a running back. Over the course of his four seasons in Cleveland, he accumulated 2297 yards on 423 carries for a 5.4-yard average. In spite of the relatively low number of rushing attempts (the 131 in ’59 were his career high), he never had less than 500 yards on the ground in any of those seasons.

Mitchell also caught 35 passes for 351 yards out of the backfield in 1959; not surprisingly, for a player who would be converted to flanker in Washington with great success, he was an excellent receiver from the halfback position. By way of comparison, Brown caught 24 passes for 190 yards - while he also was a good receiver out of the backfield, he wasn’t thrown to as often, and Head Coach Paul Brown often liked to use him as a decoy in passing situations.

Despite being the NFL’s best rushing team, the Browns ended up with a 7-5 record, tied for second in the Eastern Conference and three games behind the Giants. After rising to 6-2 with the win over the Redskins, they lost their next three games to fall out of contention. Problems with the passing attack and defense negated the ground gaining advantage. As to Washington, they sank to 3-9 for the year, in fifth place in the East.

November 14, 2009

1943: Sid Luckman Passes for 433 Yards and 7 Touchdowns vs. Giants

November 14, 1943 was “Sid Luckman Day” at the Polo Grounds in New York. Luckman, quarterback of the visiting Chicago Bears, was a Brooklyn native who had played his college football at Columbia University. He had led the Bears to three consecutive Western Division titles and two NFL championships, and was now due to report for wartime duty as an ensign in the Merchant Marine after the season. He received two $1000 War Bonds, one each from the Giants fans and the Bears. And then Luckman proceeded to make the day truly his with a record-setting performance against the home team.

The Bears struck early in the first quarter on a low throw from Luckman that end Jim Benton scooped in and turned into a four-yard touchdown. Luckman hit end Connie Berry in stride for a 44-yard TD completion to make the score 14-0 at the end of the first quarter. The Giants put together a 73-yard drive, culminating in a one-yard touchdown run by FB Carl Kinscherf to cut the lead to 14-7. But the Monsters of the Midway came right back as Luckman threw his third TD, 27 yards to end Hamp Pool. A four-yard run by HB Harry Clarke closed out the scoring for the first half, with the Bears holding a commanding lead over the Giants of 28-7.

Luckman threw his fourth and fifth scoring passes of the game in the third quarter, 62 yards to Clarke and 15 yards to Benton. Number six came in the fourth quarter on a three-yard pass to end George Wilson. Head Coach George Halas had wanted to pull Luckman once it was apparent that the Bears had the game well in hand, but the other players revolted, wanting the star quarterback to get a chance to break the record of six touchdown passes in a game that Washington’s Sammy Baugh had set just two weeks earlier. He did, passing for his seventh TD on a 40-yard completion to Pool with six minutes remaining, and the Bears wrapped up a 56-7 win.

Not only did Luckman set a new standard for touchdown passes in a game (tied four times but never surpassed), but he also became the first QB in NFL history to pass for 400 yards in a game (433). He completed 21 of 32 passes, with one interception as the only blemish on a dominating performance.

The Bears finished the season with an 8-1-1 record that kept them atop the Western Division. The Giants, a strong team under Head Coach Steve Owen in spite of being demolished by the Bears, ended up at 6-3-1 and tied with the Redskins for first place in the East, losing the divisional playoff. Chicago defeated Washington for the NFL championship, with Luckman beating his quarterback rival, Baugh, and steering the Bears to three titles in four years.

For the season, Luckman led the league in passing yards (2194) and touchdown passes (28), both of which set new NFL records (the record for TD passes didn’t fall until 1959). His yards per attempt average of 10.86 was also a record and remains the second highest to date (Luckman also ranks second all-time with his 8.42 career yards per attempt). Luckman was a unanimous All-NFL selection and received the Joe F. Carr Trophy as league MVP. For a quarterback who had difficulty mastering the complexity of the T-formation when he first joined the Bears, he became a masterful performer, and the 1943 season was the pinnacle of his Hall of Fame career.

November 13, 2009

1994: Drew Bledsoe Completes 45 of 70 passes to Overcome Vikings

The fans at Foxboro Stadium on November 13, 1994 were treated to a passing frenzy as the New England Patriots (3-6) faced the visiting Minnesota Vikings (7-2). 22-year-old Drew Bledsoe, in his second year in the league, was rapidly developing into a very effective quarterback. On this day, he was facing off against Warren Moon, just a few days short of his 38th birthday, the veteran signal caller who was now in his first year with the Vikings.

In the first half, it looked as though Moon would win the showdown as he passed for 234 yards, including a 65-yard TD to WR Qadray Ismail, as the Vikings rolled to a 20-0 lead; the Patriots finally scored on the last play of the half as Matt Bahr connected on a 38-yard field goal.

New England utilized the no-huddle offense in the second half to good effect. Bledsoe completed a 31-yard TD pass to WR Ray Crittenden in the third quarter to cut the Minnesota lead in half, and in the fourth quarter he led the Patriots on an 87-yard drive that culminated in a five-yard touchdown strike to RB Leroy Thompson. A 56-yard drive set up the game-tying field goal by Bahr with 14 seconds left.

New England received the kickoff in overtime and went 67 yards in a game-winning drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Bledsoe to FB Kevin Turner. In the second half and overtime periods alone, Bledsoe filled the air with 53 passes, completing 37 of them for 354 yards and three TDs.

Overall, Bledsoe set NFL records both for passing attempts (70) and completions (45) in a game, totaling 426 yards with the three touchdowns and, perhaps most remarkably, no interceptions. With Warren Moon completing 26 of 42 passes for 349 yards and a TD, both teams combined for the most passes attempted (112) and completed (71) in a game.

Three New England receivers reached double figures, Leroy Thompson topping the list with 11 for 74 yards. TE Ben Coates also accumulated 74 yards on his 10 receptions, while WR Michael Timpson caught 10 passes and led the team with 113 yards. Not surprisingly, the Patriots ran the ball just 12 times (for 42 yards), but they were not a strong running team in ’94, ranking at the bottom of the NFL with a yards per carry average of just 2.8.

The game marked a turning point for the Patriots – they won their remaining six games to finish at 10-6, good enough for second place in the AFC East and a wild card spot in the postseason. They lost to Cleveland in the first round. The Vikings split the rest of their games and also ended up at 10-6, winning the NFC Central title and also losing in the first round of the playoffs to Chicago.

Drew Bledsoe led the league in four passing categories: attempts (691), completions (400), yards (4555), and, on the downside, interceptions (27), all of which were career highs. He was selected to the first of his four Pro Bowl appearances – impressive for just a second-year quarterback. His favorite receiver, Ben Coates, led the AFC with 96 receptions (for 1174 yards); Timpson nearly joined him as a thousand-yard receiver with 941 yards on 74 catches.

Warren Moon lost on this day, but as his statistics indicate, he had another solid season in his Hall of Fame career, passing for over 4000 yards (4264) for the third of four times.

November 12, 2009

1892: Pudge Heffelfinger Becomes First Documented Pro Football Player

On November 12, 1892 a crowd of approximately 3000 packed Recreation Park in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), home of the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA), for its showdown with the archrival Pittsburgh Athletic Club (PAC). In the second half of the 19th century, athletic clubs became very popular and were used to organize teams in a variety of sports including football. Winning was a means to gaining social prestige for the club, and so games were taken quite seriously and rivalries could be very fierce. These two teams had played to a hard-fought 6-6 tie at the PAC’s home field on October 12, and there were rumors that both sides were attempting to hire ringers for the rematch.

In fact, PAC’s manager, George Barbour, had made a trip to Chicago to make an offer to William “Pudge” Heffelfinger and another player to join his team. Heffelfinger had been a three-time college All-American guard at Yale (1889-91) and was now playing for a traveling amateur team, the Chicago Athletic Association. Barbour was unsuccessful, however; for Heffelfinger had quit the team and gone to Pittsburgh where he met up with the AAA’s manager, Billy Kountz. When game day arrived, Heffelfinger and two other teammates from Chicago were playing for the Three A’s (as they were often referred to locally).

The PAC immediately protested and an argument broke out between the clubs. The substitutes for the two teams began playing, which hardly satisfied the crowd in attendance, but finally the regular players agreed to an abbreviated game (since darkness was approaching) of 30 minutes rather than the usual 45. Heffelfinger did not disappoint – he forced a fumble that he then picked up and ran 35 yards for the game’s only touchdown. The AAA won, 4-0 (touchdowns were worth less in those days).

Afterward, Heffelfinger received $500 plus $25 for expenses (his teammates from the Chicago AA, Ed Malley and Ben “Sport” Donnelly, received expense money). It was the first recorded incidence of an athlete being paid to play football.

While it is suspected that others may have been paid prior to Heffelfinger, and certainly received perks provided by the athletic clubs for their participation, the entry in the Allegheny Athletic Association’s ledger documenting the transaction is the oldest proven player payment (the documentation wasn’t uncovered until the 1960s, and is now held by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Previously, a club in Latrobe, Pennsylvania had claimed to be the first to have paid a player, in 1895).

It did not take long for professionalism to take hold, even if at a rather modest level. By 1896, there were teams that were entirely made up of paid players. The league that would become the National Football League was still 24 years in the future.

Pudge Heffelfinger went on to become a college football coach at the University of California, Lehigh University, and the University of Minnesota. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. But for one game, he made his mark in the development of pro football.

November 11, 2009

1990: Derrick Thomas Has 7 Sacks vs. Seahawks

On November 11, 1990, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas set the record for most sacks by an individual player in an NFL game with seven – but it was the one that he failed to make that cost the Chiefs the game.

Kansas City was 5-3 and trying to keep pace with the Raiders in the AFC West as they hosted the Seattle Seahawks (3-5) at Arrowhead Stadium. The game was low-scoring, with the Chiefs holding a 6-3 lead at the half. The Seahawks passed for the first touchdown in the third quarter, with QB Dave Krieg hitting WR Jeff Chadwick for 54 yards.

After Kansas City’s Nick Lowery narrowed the margin with a 24-yard field goal to make the score 10-9, Thomas forced a fumble as he sacked Krieg for the third time in the game; NT Dan Saleaumua recovered in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.

Thomas put on an outstanding display of pass rushing skill as he sacked Krieg four more times to break Fred Dean’s record of 6 sacks in a game (set in 1983). But in the end it wasn’t enough as the Seahawks went 66 yards on four plays in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. With time expiring, Krieg looked downfield to make a desperation pass and it appeared that Thomas had a grip on him for a game-ending sack; instead, the quarterback got free and fired the ball into the end zone where a well-covered WR Paul Skansi outleaped the Kansas City defenders and came down with the 25-yard TD reception. Norm Johnson kicked the game-winning extra point, and Seattle ended up with a 17-16 win.

“I thought I had him,” said a disappointed Thomas afterward. “He just stumbled back and caught his balance and threw the pass. That last sack I didn’t get is the one I’m going to remember.”

In spite of being sacked a total of 9 times (once apiece by LB Chris Martin and DE Neil Smith in addition to the seven by Thomas), Krieg was able to complete 16 of 23 passes for 306 yards and the two touchdowns. His Kansas City counterpart, Steve DeBerg, couldn’t get the Chiefs into the end zone, completing 16 of 30 passes for 124 yards, with no completion longer than 15 yards.

The Chiefs ended up with an 11-5 record, coming in second in the AFC West and making the postseason as a wild card; they lost to Miami in the first round (also by a 17-16 score). Seattle was right behind in third place at 9-7.

Derrick Thomas led the NFL with a career-high 20 sacks over the course of the 1990 season, doubling his rookie total of the year before when he had been selected as NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press. He was a unanimous All-NFL selection and went to his second of an eventual nine Pro Bowls over the course of his Hall of Fame career.

November 10, 2009

1996: Arizona’s Boomer Esiason Passes for 522 Yards in Wild Win Over Redskins

Boomer Esiason spent one of his 14 seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, and for the most part it confirmed that, at age 35, his best years were behind him. The skills that had made him one of the league’s better quarterbacks in his prime had eroded, and he found himself in competition with journeyman Kent Graham for the starting job.

However, on November 10, 1996 he was in top form as the Cardinals took on the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium in a Week 11 matchup. Arizona, at 3-6, was struggling under new Head Coach Vince Tobin, while the Redskins were 7-2, having reeled off seven consecutive wins after an opening day defeat before losing badly at Buffalo the previous week.

The first quarter passed quietly as the teams traded field goals. Washington RB Marc Logan scored the initial touchdown of the game in the second quarter on a 36-yard run, but the Cardinals scored the next ten points thanks to a 39-yard field goal by Kevin Butler and a 64-yard TD pass from Esiason to WR Marcus Dowdell. Scott Blanton kicked a 24-yard field goal and the score was tied at the half, 13-13.

Washington twice led by 14 points in the second half, scoring two touchdowns in the third quarter for a 27-13 margin and, after Cardinals FB Larry Centers scored from a yard out, by 34-20 when RB Terry Allen responded with a short TD run of his own. But in the fourth quarter, Boomer Esiason put on a phenomenal passing display. He threw TD passes of 13 yards to TE Johnny McWilliams and 12 yards to WR Anthony Edwards that knotted the score at 34-34 and forced the game into overtime, but that told only part of the story; in the fourth quarter and overtime periods alone he completed 23 of 35 passes for 351 yards and the two touchdowns.

The overtime period was certainly gut-wrenching for both teams. The Cardinals won the toss and Esiason drove the team to the Washington 15 yard line, but Butler missed a 32-yard field goal attempt. The Redskins were unable to capitalize and Arizona got the ball back, but a fumble turned the ball back over to Washington. It seemed as though the Redskins had won the game when Blanton kicked an apparent 38-yard field goal, but a holding call nullified the attempt and Blanton missed the ensuing follow-up kick from 48 yards.

With time running down in the overtime period, the Cardinals made it to the Washington 19 yard line and Kevin Butler again attempted a game-winning field goal, only to have it hit the left upright and bounce away. However, safety Darryl Morrison of the Redskins was flagged for being offside, and Butler finally ended the contest with a 32-yard field goal with only seconds remaining in the extra period.

Arizona accumulated 615 yards of total offense – the most ever surrendered in a game by the Redskins – in pulling out the 37-34 win. Most of it was accounted for by Boomer Esiason, who for the day completed 35 of 59 passes for 522 yards and three touchdowns, with four interceptions; the yardage total was the third highest ever attained by an NFL quarterback.

Larry Centers and WR Frank Sanders both caught six passes apiece, and Marcus Dowdell, who had scored on the first TD pass, had the most yards among the receivers with 92 on three receptions; WR Rob Moore was right behind with 91 yards, also on three catches. The efforts of Washington RB Terry Allen, who carried the ball 31 times for 124 yards and two scores, were overshadowed by Esiason’s heroics.

The Cardinals won their next two games and finished at 7-9, in fourth place in the NFC East. Washington lost four of the remaining six games to end up with a 9-7 record and third place in the division. When the two teams met again for the rematch in Phoenix, Arizona won again, although with Kent Graham at quarterback (accumulating far fewer passing yards).

For Boomer Esiason, the outstanding game at Washington was the high point of an ultimately disappointing season. The team went 3-5 in games he started, and competing with Graham did not sit well. When Coach Tobin designated Graham to be the starting quarterback for 1997, Esiason demanded to be released from the second year of his contract and returned to the team he had started with, the Cincinnati Bengals, for his final season.

November 9, 2009

1975: Steve Spurrier to Gene Washington Ends Rams Win Streak vs. 49ers

The Los Angeles Rams hosted the San Francisco 49ers at the Memorial Coliseum on November 9, 1975, having won 10 consecutive games against the Niners. The Rams, NFC West champs in ’73 and ’74, came into this Week 7 game again leading the division with a 6-1 record, while San Francisco was a lowly 2-5.

It appeared that the win streak, dating back to the 1970 season and having most recently included a 23-14 victory at Candlestick Park six weeks earlier, looked likely to continue when the Rams held a 14-0 lead at the half. Steve Spurrier, starting his first game at quarterback for the 49ers since 1973 in place of Norm Snead, had a mediocre half, completing just 6 of 17 passes for 60 yards. However, San Francisco had an apparent touchdown pass from Spurrier to WR Gene Washington called back due to a penalty and had driven at one point to the L.A. 11-yard line, only to come up empty, so the domination was not quite as complete as the score would imply.

Spurrier began to find the range in the third quarter, completing a 42-yard touchdown pass to Washington. The 49ers tied the score after a long drive that included a 12-yard run by Spurrier on a quarterback draw and concluded with a 19-yard scoring pass to RB Delvin Williams.

L.A. went ahead in the fourth quarter, 17-14, thanks to a 23-yard Tom Dempsey field goal, but a 68-yard Spurrier to Washington pass play put San Francisco back in the lead. The back-and-forth struggle saw the Rams once again move out in front, 23-21, on a short scoring run by RB Jim Bertelsen with 1:24 left to play (crucially, the extra point attempt failed). The 49ers finally prevailed on a 54-yard field goal by Steve Mike-Mayer with 38 seconds left that made the final score 24-23.

For Spurrier, the performance was a highlight in what had been an uneven career in San Francisco. He completed 19 of 38 passes for 290 yards and three TDs, with no interceptions. Gene Washington caught 5 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. On a day when the running game was mediocre (Spurrier was the leading ground gainer for the 49ers with 30 yards on five carries), the Spurrier to Washington combination had been crucial.

The win over the Rams was the first of three consecutive midseason victories for the 49ers, but they lost their last four games to end up with a 5-9 record. They finished a distant second in the NFC West behind the 12-2 Rams, who advanced to the conference championship game and lost to Dallas.

Steve Spurrier ended up starting six games, but hopes for a revival of his career in San Francisco ended and he was traded to the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 1976 season. Gene Washington caught 44 passes for 735 yards, with a typically healthy yards-per-reception average of 16.7 and 9 TDs. Deficiencies with the offense – in particular inconsistency at quarterback – had caused his production to drop after having been a Pro Bowl selection in his first four seasons (1969-72), but as his performance against the Rams made clear, he was still very much a big play receiver.

November 8, 2009

1970: Tom Dempsey Kicks 63-Yard Field Goal to Jolt Lions

The November 8, 1970 game between the New Orleans Saints (1-5-1) and visiting Detroit Lions (5-2) at Tulane Stadium hardly seemed like a matchup that would come down to the last play. The Saints weren’t playing well, had lost their last two games by 32-14 and 30-17 margins, and had just replaced Head Coach Tom Fears with J.D. Roberts.

The Lions were contenders in the NFC Central and were coming off a key divisional loss to Minnesota, with the rematch coming up the following week. But they led by only 7-6 at the half and were down, 16-14, in the fourth quarter when Saints RB Tom Barrington scored on a four-yard run. However, with 6:42 left in the game, QB Greg Landry led the Lions on a 76-yard drive that ended in an 18-yard Errol Mann field goal with only 11 seconds remaining.

The Saints ran one play after the ensuing kickoff, with QB Billy Kilmer hitting WR Al Dodd along the sideline for a 17-yard gain to the New Orleans 45 yard line (there was some doubt that Dodd had managed to keep both feet inbounds). With two seconds remaining, placekicker Tom Dempsey came onto the field to attempt a field goal.

Dempsey had been born without a right hand and with no toes on his right (kicking) foot. In spite of his disabilities, he played football for Palomar Junior College in California, and joined the Saints in ’69 after a stint on San Diego’s taxi squad. A hefty 6’2” and 255 pounds, he had a powerful leg, but accuracy was always an issue. There was also controversy regarding the modified shoe that he wore on his kicking foot which was in questionable compliance with league rules on footwear.

In his first season in New Orleans, he had been successful on 53.7 % of his field goal attempts (22 of 41) – and was just one for 11 from 50 or more yards away – and thus far in 1970 he had been hampered by a pulled muscle in his hip and had been good on only five of 15 field goal attempts.

On this day against the Lions, Dempsey had kicked field goals from 29, 27, and 8 yards. Now he instructed his holder, Joe Scarpati, to set up eight yards deep rather than the customary seven to provide a bit more time and room for his long attempt.

The snap and hold were just right, and Dempsey kicked the ball solidly. Many of the Detroit defenders didn’t take the long field goal attempt seriously and barely mounted a rush, although veteran DT Alex Karras came charging in and nearly got a hand on the kick. But the ball cleared the line with plenty of height, hung for a long time, and went over the crossbar just to the right of center by about a foot, landing three yards beyond.

Fans and teammates erupted wildly, over both the 19-17 win for the Saints and the wholly improbable manner in which they had won. As Detroit Head Coach Joe Schmidt put it afterward, “You’ll never see it again. It’s like winning the Masters with a 390-yard hole-in-one on the last shot”.

Dempsey’s kick broke the existing record for longest field goal – 56 yards by Baltimore’s Bert Rechichar in 1953 – by seven yards. To date, few have come close, and it was finally tied by Jason Elam of the Broncos 28 years later.

The 63-yard field goal made Dempsey an overnight celebrity, but it didn’t guarantee him job security. He finished the ’70 season at 18 for 34 (52.9 %) and was cut the following preseason. Picked up by Philadelphia during the 1971 season, he actually led the league in field goal percentage (70.6 on 12 of 17 attempts) and set a then-team record for the Eagles with a 54-yard boot. He went on to play three more seasons in Philadelphia before moving on to the Rams, Oilers, and Bills.

The win was the high point for the New Orleans Saints in ’70 – they lost the remainder of their games and ended up with a 2-11-1 record at the bottom of the NFC West. Detroit recovered to finish at 10-4, good enough for second place in the NFC Central and, in this first season of the newly-merged NFL, a postseason spot as the conference’s wild card team.