January 31, 2010

1988: Redskins Ride 35-Point 2nd Quarter to Defeat Broncos in Super Bowl XXII

The Super Bowl following the strike-shortened 1987 season featured two teams who regularly reached the postseason in the 80s, the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos.

Washington, under Head Coach Joe Gibbs, was in the playoffs for the fifth time since 1982 and had appeared in two Super Bowls, winning one of them. Jay Schroeder had been the starting quarterback for most of the ’87 season, but had slumped and was replaced late in the campaign by veteran Doug Williams (pictured above). Williams, who had had a solid career with Tampa Bay followed by a stint in the USFL, rose to the occasion as the team won the NFC East with an 11-4 record and got past the Bears and Vikings, respectively, in winning the Divisional and conference title rounds. Behind an outstanding offensive line, the running attack utilized a stable of backs led by George Rogers (613 yards in 11 games) and Kelvin Bryant, the favored receiver out of the backfield (43 receptions). WR Gary Clark had an All-Pro season, catching 56 passes for 1066 yards in 12 games.

The AFC champions were the Denver Broncos, under Head Coach Dan Reeves, who were in the playoffs for the fourth time since 1983 and had lost the previous year’s Super Bowl to the Giants. QB John Elway was selected as NFL MVP by the Associated Press after throwing for 3198 yards and lifting the offense with his impressive overall skills. His receiving corps of wide receivers Vance Johnson, Ricky Nattiel, and Mark Jackson, known as “The Three Amigos”, combined for 99 catches and 1750 yards with 11 touchdowns. The rushing attack was led by RB Sammy Winder (741 yards). Denver easily got past Houston in the Divisional playoff and then won the AFC title contest in a 38-33 battle over Cleveland.

The Broncos were considered the favorites for the Super Bowl XXII matchup on January 31, 1988 before 73,302 fans at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium. Denver certainly made it look easy on the team’s first play from scrimmage as Elway went long to Nattiel for a 56-yard touchdown. On the next possession, the Broncos again drove to a score on a drive that featured a gadget play in which RB Steve Sewell faked a run and then threw to Elway for a 23-yard gain. However, after having a first down at the Washington 13 yard line, Denver was forced to settle for a 24-yard Rich Karlis field goal.

Late in the first quarter the Broncos once again drove into Redskins territory. On third-and-10 at the 30 yard line, SS Alvin Walton sacked Elway for an 18-yard loss that took Denver out of field goal range and forced a punt. On the ensuing possession, Williams slipped while dropping back to pass and twisted his knee, forcing him to leave the game for the remainder of the series as Schroeder stepped in.

Williams was back under center when the Redskins got the ball back in the second quarter after Denver again had to punt, and while visibly limping led the offense on an unprecedented tear. The Redskins scored touchdowns on each of the next five possessions prior to halftime, four of them on Williams passes. On Washington's first play of the quarter, Williams hit WR Ricky Sanders for an 80-yard TD. Next, it was Williams hitting Clark for a 27-yard score and 14-10 lead. RB Timmy Smith, a backup during the season who had carried the ball only 29 times for 126 yards and was told just prior to game time that he would be starting, took off on a 58-yard touchdown run to make it 21-10. The fourth score came on another Williams to Sanders pass play, this time covering 50 yards. Finally, just a minute before the end of the half, Williams hit TE Clint Didier with an eight-yard throw and the score at the intermission was an astounding 35-10.

As for the Broncos in the second quarter, they punted twice, missed a field goal, and Elway threw two interceptions under heavy pressure. Washington’s domination had been as complete as the score indicated. The second quarter statistics alone showed Williams completing 9 of 11 passes for 228 yards and four TDs and Smith with 122 yards on just five carries.

The second half was an anticlimax. Williams directed the offense with time-consuming precision and Elway was barraged by a relentless pass rush. Washington scored once more in the fourth quarter on a 68-yard drive that was capped by a four-yard TD run by Smith. The final score was 42-10.

Doug Williams was the game’s MVP as he ended up completing 18 of his 29 passes for a then-Super Bowl record 340 yards with the four TDs and a lone interception. In doing so, he became the first African-American quarterback to lead a team to victory in the Super Bowl – a fact that had been endlessly hyped prior to the game and added an extra layer of pressure that he overcame admirably. Timmy Smith (pictured above left) justified the decision by Coach Gibbs to start him in place of the bigger but slower George Rogers as he set a Super Bowl record with 204 yards on 22 carries with two scores. Ricky Sanders (pictured below) caught 9 passes for 193 yards and two TDs.

For the losing Broncos, John Elway completed just 14 of 38 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown against three interceptions. Mark Jackson and Steve Sewell led the club with four pass receptions apiece, with Jackson accumulating the most yards (76). As it was, “The Three Amigos” accounted for only six receptions. Falling behind so quickly, Denver ran the ball 17 times, for 97 yards, with RB Gene Lang gaining the most yards with 38 on five attempts.

Overall, Washington burned the Broncos for 602 total yards (Denver had 327). The Redskins defense sacked Elway five times in addition to intercepting three of his passes.

The Redskins were unable to follow up on their success, going 7-9 in 1988 and tying for third place in the tough NFC East. Williams suffered from injuries and split time with Mark Rypien at quarterback. Timmy Smith gained just 470 yards and, for all intents and purposes, his career was over (he carried once for Dallas in a 1990 game). Denver also missed the playoffs in ’88, finishing in second place in the AFC West with an 8-8 record, but returned to the Super Bowl following the 1989 season – and lost in humiliating fashion once again, to the 49ers.

January 30, 2010

2000: Titans Come Up a Yard Short, Fall to Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV

The Rams had not been very successful since moving from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995; in fact, they had had nothing but losing records since getting to the NFC Championship game following the ’89 season. Dick Vermeil, who had last coached in the NFL with the Eagles in 1982, became the head coach in 1997 but, in two seasons, had compiled a mediocre 9-23 tally.

It didn’t appear that 1999 would be any better when QB Trent Green, who they were counting upon to start after signing him away from the Redskins as a free agent, went down for the year with a knee injury in the preseason. Replacing him was Kurt Warner (pictured above), a 28-year-old unknown with an arena football and NFL Europe background who had appeared in one game in ’98 as a backup to Tony Banks and Steve Bono. What occurred became the stuff of pro football legend as Warner proceeded to pass for 4353 yards and a league-leading 41 touchdowns while compiling a top-ranked 109.2 passer rating. Veteran Pro Bowl WR Isaac Bruce hauled in 77 passes for 1165 yards and 12 TDs, while rookie WR Torry Holt added 52 catches for 788 yards. RB Marshall Faulk, acquired from the Colts in the offseason, contributed 1381 rushing yards, with a 5.5 yards-per-carry average, along with a team-leading 87 pass receptions for another 1048 yards.

The Rams roared through the ’99 schedule, piling up 526 points in winning the NFC West with a 13-3 record. They defeated Minnesota in the Divisional playoff round and then got past Tampa Bay, 11-6, in a tense, hard-fought NFC Championship game.

Their opponent in Super Bowl XXXIV was the Tennessee Titans, another team that had relocated in the preceding decade. Formerly the Houston Oilers, the club had moved to Tennessee in 1997 and, after a couple of nomadic years moved into its new home, Adelphia Coliseum, with a new name, the Titans, for ’99. Through all the moving and related distractions, Head Coach Jeff Fisher gathered together the pieces of a winning football team. In 1999, Tennessee came in second in the AFC Central with a 13-3 tally, good enough to earn a wild card spot in the postseason.

The Titans operated a conservative offense guided by QB Steve McNair (pictured at right) and the running of RB Eddie George (1304 yards). TE Frank Wycheck led the receiving corps (69 catches, 641 yards). The rugged defense featured rookie DE Jevon Kearse (aka “The Freak”), CB Samari Rolle, and SS Blaine Bishop. They defeated Buffalo in stunning fashion in the Wild Card playoff, and proceeded to beat the Colts and Jaguars in the Divisional and AFC Championship contests, respectively.

There were 72,625 fans present at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome on January 30, 2000 for the Super Bowl matchup. St. Louis moved the ball with ease in the first half, amassing 294 yards and driving inside the Tennessee 20 yard line on each possession but coming away with just three field goals. On the first drive, holder Rick Tuten bobbled the snap to thwart a field goal attempt, and placekicker Jeff Wilkins, who was successful on kicks of 27, 29, and 28 yards, also missed a 34-yarder.

The Titans threatened to score just once in the half, but Al Del Greco missed a 47-yard field goal attempt following a 42-yard drive. Tennessee amassed just 89 yards of offense, but was down only 9-0 at the half.

In the first possession of the second half, the Titans made it into field goal range but Del Greco’s 47-yard attempt was blocked by CB Todd Lyght. The Rams turned around and moved once more deep into Tennessee territory, highlighted by a 31-yard pass completion from Warner to Bruce. Warner tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Holt and St. Louis was ahead 16-0 and seemed to be in control.

However, the Titans offense came alive, scoring 16 points in under 14 minutes to tie the game. A 23-yard scramble by McNair set up Tennessee’s first score of the game, a one-yard rush by George. The try for a two-point conversion failed. But after the Rams were forced to punt, the Titans came right back with a 13-play, 79-yard drive that was capped by another short Eddie George touchdown run.

Once again, the Titans defense forced St. Louis to punt, and Tennessee again capitalized as Del Greco booted a 43-yard field goal to knot the score at 16-16 with just over two minutes remaining. It didn’t stay tied for long - on their next play, Warner fired a long pass to Bruce; hit as he was throwing, the ball was a bit underthrown but the wide receiver adjusted, and breaking a tackle he streaked into the end zone to complete the 73-yard touchdown play.

With 1:54 left in the fourth quarter, the Titans took over on their 12 yard line and proceeded to drive down the field. On third-and-five at the St. Louis 26, McNair barely avoided a sack and hit WR Kevin Dyson with a pass that gained 16 yards. There were now just six seconds left and the ball ten yards away from the end zone as McNair threw one last pass on a slant to Dyson who caught it in full stride at the three. Rams LB Mike Jones grabbed Dyson and tackled him a yard short of the goal line as time ran out (pictured at bottom). The Super Bowl had come within a yard (and successful extra point) of going into overtime; as it was, the Rams capped their remarkable season with a 23-16 win.

The Rams outgained the Titans with 436 yards to 367. Most of that was accounted for by the game’s MVP, Kurt Warner, who set a Super Bowl record with 414 yards on his 24 completions out of 45 passes thrown, including two touchdowns. Isaac Bruce gained 162 yards on 6 catches with a TD, while Torry Holt added 7 receptions for 109 yards and a score and Marshall Faulk (pictured at left) caught five for 90 yards. The Rams gained just 29 yards on the ground, with Faulk rushing for 17 yards in 10 carries.

Eddie George rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns on 28 attempts, while Steve McNair added 64 yards on 8 carries. McNair also completed 22 of 36 passes for 214 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions (neither team suffered a turnover). TE Jackie Harris was Tennessee’s top pass receiver with 7 catches for 64 yards.

Dick Vermeil retired, having finally won a championship (although he returned to coach the Chiefs in 2001). The Rams were back in the postseason in 2000 as a wild card entry, losing in the first round, and returned to the Super Bowl in ’01, when they were upset by the Patriots. Kurt Warner’s career was derailed by a hand injury and he lost his starting job to Marc Bulger; he would eventually return to the Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals following the 2008 season. As for the Titans, they improved to 13-3 in 2000 but were upset by Baltimore in the Divisional playoff round.

January 29, 2010

1995: 49ers Return to Top, Defeat Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX

After winning four Super Bowls in the 1980s, stretching from the 1981 to ’89 seasons, the San Francisco 49ers had come up short in the years from 1990 to ’93. They had not won fewer than 10 games, but had lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship games following the 1992 and ’93 seasons.

By 1994, the 49ers had retooled significantly since first rising to prominence in 1981. Head Coach Bill Walsh, builder of the dynasty, was gone, as was QB Joe Montana. So were others who had starred along the way, such as RB Roger Craig, WR Dwight Clark, and safety Ronnie Lott.

The ’94 49ers were still under Walsh’s successor, Head Coach George Seifert, who had led the team to its last championship in 1989, his first year at the helm. QB Steve Young (pictured above) had emerged from Montana’s shadow to lead the NFL in passing for the fourth consecutive season (with a then-record 112.8 rating) as well as touchdown passes (35), touchdown percentage (7.6), completion percentage (70.3), and yards per attempt (8.6); his 3969 yards ranked fourth. As he had been for Montana, WR Jerry Rice was Young’s favorite target, leading the league with 1499 yards on his 112 catches with 13 TDs. RB Ricky Watters had emerged to gain 1596 yards from scrimmage (877 rushing, 719 receiving). The defense featured DT Dana Stubblefield, flashy CB Deion Sanders, and safeties Merton Hanks and Tim McDonald.

San Francisco compiled a 13-3 record in winning the NFC West, easily defeated the Bears in the Divisional playoff round, and finally got past the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game by a 38-28 margin.

Opposing the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX were the San Diego Chargers, who had stunned the favored Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game. The Chargers, under Head Coach Bobby Ross, had gone 11-5 in winning the AFC West. Stan Humphries , while hardly an elite quarterback, played through injuries, had a strong arm, and provided good leadership. RB Natrone Means contributed 1350 yards rushing. LB Junior Seau and DE Leslie O’Neal anchored a defense that was especially effective against the run.

The 49ers were favored as the teams met for the championship on January 29, 1995 before 74,107 fans at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. They wasted no time getting on the scoreboard as Young threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Rice just three plays into the game. On their next possession, they scored again, this time taking only four plays when Young passed to Watters for a 51-yard TD.

The Chargers showed poise, however, as they controlled the ball for over seven minutes and went 78 yards in 13 plays to score on a one-yard run by Means. Still, the San Diego defense couldn’t stop San Francisco’s offense, as the Niners went up by 21-7 on yet another touchdown pass by Young, this time of five yards to FB William Floyd.

Just under five minutes before halftime, Young threw his fourth TD pass of the game, connecting with Watters for a second time from eight yards out. John Carney kicked a 31-yard field goal for the Chargers and the score stood at 28-10 at the half.

The Niners pulled away in the third quarter, with Watters scoring his third touchdown on a nine-yard run and Young connecting with Rice for a 15-yard score. San Diego WR Andre Coleman returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and the Chargers successfully converted a two-point PAT on a Humphreys pass to WR Mark Seay. But at 42-18, there was little doubt as to the outcome.

Young set a Super Bowl record with his sixth touchdown pass, hitting Rice for the third time from seven yards out. San Diego scored one last time, on a 30-yard pass play from Humphries to WR Tony Martin, and after another successful two-point conversion, the final score was 49-26.

The 49ers outgained the Chargers by 455 yards to 354. Steve Young was the game’s MVP as he completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards with the six TDs and no interceptions. Jerry Rice (pictured at bottom) led the receivers with 10 catches for 149 yards and three touchdowns. Young was actually the leading rusher as well, with 49 yards on five carries, but Ricky Watters (pictured) gained 47 yards with his 15 attempts, including a TD, and also had another 61 yards and two scores on three pass receptions.

As for San Diego, Stan Humphries went to the air 49 times, completed 24 for 275 yards and had a TD, but also threw two interceptions. Natrone Means was held to 33 yards on 13 attempts. Ronnie Harmon, used primarily as a pass receiver out of the backfield, had 8 receptions for 68 yards while Mark Seay accumulated 75 yards on 7 catches.

It was a great performance by San Francisco in becoming the first team to win five Super Bowls (joined the next year by Dallas, but since passed by Pittsburgh with a fifth and sixth). Steve Young proved himself as a championship-caliber quarterback, on his way to joining Joe Montana in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The 49ers were in the playoffs for the next four seasons, although they didn’t reach the Super Bowl in any of them. San Diego dropped to 9-7 in 1995, still making the postseason as a wild card team and losing in the first round; the Chargers then fell into a long, eight-year playoff dry spell.

January 28, 2010

1959: Vince Lombardi Hired as Head Coach/GM of Packers

By the late 1950s, the Green Bay Packers franchise was at a critical juncture. Once one of the perennial powers in the NFL, they had not been over .500 since 1947. The last of the small-city Midwestern teams that had been the bedrock of the league in its early stages, there was grumbling among the hierarchy that perhaps it was time for the Packers to go. The fans were frustrated with losing, and had endured a succession of disappointing coaches since Curly Lambeau stepped aside after the ’49 season.

The most recent of those coaches, Ray “Scooter” McLean, had been forced to resign after a dreadful 1-10-1 campaign in 1958. The directors who ran the team knew that a bold choice was in order, especially after the failure of the genial McLean. While there were several candidates under consideration, respected figures around the league recommended the assistant coach who ran the New York Giants offense, Vince Lombardi.

Lombardi hadn’t been a head coach above the high school level, but he had been an assistant under Red Blaik at Army and Jim Lee Howell with the Giants. He had gained a reputation as intelligent and in the forefront of modern developments in offensive game planning in New York, and had been granted total control of the offense by Howell (Tom Landry exercised similar authority over the defense).

On January 28, 1959 the Packers named Lombardi not only head coach, but general manager – control that the previous coaches hadn’t been given. He made it clear that he was in charge, and that he was used to winning.

The Packers had not been well coached in recent years, but personnel director Jack Vainisi had managed to accumulate some talent. Some of that talent had been misused – most notably Paul Hornung, who had done poorly as a quarterback and fullback – and there were plenty of diamonds in the rough, like QB Bart Starr and FB Jim Taylor. There were solid veterans in All-Pro center Jim Ringo and offensive end Max McGee, and other young players like guards Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg (moved to OT), linebackers Ray Nitschke and Bill Forester, offensive tackles Norm Masters and Bob Skoronski, in addition to Hornung, Starr, and Taylor. To that core, Lombardi added rookie Boyd Dowler, a college quarterback who was converted to flanker. He also traded an established star offensive end, Billy Howton, to Cleveland for two young defensive linemen, DE Bill Quinlan and DT Henry Jordan, and also dealt with the Colts for guard Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston. Another acquisition, Lamar McHan, started the season at quarterback. And he acquired 34-year-old safety Emlen Tunnell from the Giants to bring stability to the defensive backfield.

The Packers won their first three games, including a 9-6 home-opening victory over the Bears that had the team carrying the new coach off the field on their shoulders (pictured below). But they then lost five straight games, and Lombardi turned the offense over to Starr for the remainder of the season; Green Bay finished with four wins and an overall record of 7-5. It was good enough for a third-place tie with San Francisco in the Western Conference and was the team’s best showing since 1945.

Hornung’s performance was the most stunning of that first season – he had gone from misfit to versatile standout in the offense, thriving in the option halfback position and handling the placekicking while leading the NFL in scoring with 94 points and the team in rushing with 681 yards. Starr was still developing at quarterback, but had outplayed the veteran McHan. Dowler led the club in pass receiving with 32 catches; McGee was the deep threat, averaging 23.2 yards-per-catch on 30 receptions for 695 yards and five touchdowns. As anticipated, the veteran Ringo anchored the promising offensive line.

The defense emerged as a key asset, with the linebacker corps of Forester, Dan Currie, and Tom Bettis proving to be a very good unit, while backup Nitschke was developing fast. Quinlan and Jordan became stars on the line. Jesse Whittenton emerged at defensive halfback, as did safety John Symank.

The stage was set for a progression to the Western Conference title in ’60 and, in ’61, the first of two consecutive league championships. There would be five NFL titles in all before Lombardi retreated exclusively to the front office following the 1967 season. Several of the young players of that 1959 season would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As has been pointed out many times, Lombardi was not the most innovative head coach in pro football history, but he was outstanding at adapting other coaches’ methods and was a great teacher and motivator. When it came to the fundamentals, and performing the basics well, Lombardi’s teams excelled. The power sweep was the signature play of his offense over the years, and the Packers ran it with skill because they practiced it relentlessly and executed with precision.

Over nine seasons, the Packers compiled an 89-29-4 regular season record under Lombardi’s guidance, for a .754 winning percentage, and were 9-1 in the postseason. Considering his significant influence on coaching methods and the game in general, his nine years with Green Bay (he also coached one last year in Washington in 1969) seems surprisingly brief. But he set a standard for pro football coaches that others in the years since have sought to measure up to; it is only fitting that the Super Bowl winner’s trophy is named after him.

January 27, 2010

List of the Day: First 1000-Yard Rusher for Each Current AFC Franchise

(In chronological order)

Browns: Jim Brown, 1958 (pictured above)
(257 att., 1527 yds., 5.9 avg., 17 TD)

Bills: Cookie Gilchrist, 1962
(214 att., 1096 yds., 5.1 avg., 13 TD)

Chiefs/Dallas Texans: Abner Haynes, 1962 (pictured below #28)
(221 att., 1049 yds., 4.7 avg., 13 TD)

Steelers: John Henry Johnson, 1962 (pictured below #35)
(251 att., 1141 yds., 4.5 avg., 7 TD)

Titans/Oilers: Charley Tolar, 1962
(244 att., 1012 yds., 4.1 avg., 7 TD)

Chargers: Paul Lowe, 1963
(177 att., 1010 yds., 5.7 avg., 8 TD)

Raiders: Clem Daniels, 1963 (pictured below)
(215 att., 1099 yds., 5.1 avg., 3 TD)

Patriots: Jim Nance, 1966 (pictured at bottom #35)
(299 att., 1458 yds., 4.9 avg., 11 TD)

Bengals: Paul Robinson, 1968
(238 att., 1023 yds., 4.3 avg., 8 TD)

Broncos: Floyd Little, 1971 (pictured below)
(284 att., 1133 yds., 4.0 avg., 6 TD)

Dolphins: Larry Csonka, 1971
(195 att., 1051 yds., 5.4 avg., 7 TD)

Colts: Lydell Mitchell, 1975
(289 att., 1193 yds., 4.1 avg., 11 TD)

Jets: John Riggins, 1975 (pictured below #44)
(238 att., 1005 yds., 4.2 avg., 8 TD)

Jaguars: Fred Taylor, 1998 (pictured at bottom #28)
(264 att., 1223 yds., 4.6 avg., 14 TD)

Ravens: Priest Holmes, 1998 (pictured above #33)
(233 att., 1008 yds., 4.3 avg., 7 TD)

Texans: Domanick Davis, 2003
(238 att., 1031 yds., 4.3 avg., 8 TD)

January 26, 2010

1986: Bears Totally Demolish Patriots in Super Bowl XX

In 1985, the Chicago Bears put together one of the greatest seasons in pro football history. Coached by Mike Ditka, they had blazed through the regular season with a 15-1 record, typically dominating opponents along the way – in one three-game stretch in November, they outscored the Lions, Cowboys, and Falcons by a combined total of 104-3. QB Jim McMahon (pictured below left), who missed three full games due to injury, provided leadership on offense along with legendary RB Walter Payton (1551 rushing yards, 49 catches for 483 yards receiving). But the heart of the team was its defense, under the direction of Buddy Ryan with his aggressive “46” scheme.

From the line anchored by ends Richard Dent and Dan Hampton to the linebacker corps that featured Mike Singletary and the backfield that included safeties Dave Duerson and Gary Fencik, there was hardly a weakness to be found in the defensive unit. The numbers sustained that impression – the Bears ranked at the top of the league in fewest points allowed (198), fewest total yards allowed (258.4 per game), fewest rushing yards allowed (82.4 per game), and had the best turnover ratio (+23).

Much media attention during the season focused on DT William “The Refrigerator” Perry, the 305-pound (or so) first draft choice. While initially dismissed by Ryan as “a wasted draft pick”, he worked his way into the defense as an effective run-stopper and was occasionally used on offense as a short-yardage fullback.

Despite any distractions caused by the animosity between Ditka and Ryan (Ditka inherited Ryan, who had been defensive coordinator for four years prior to Ditka’s arrival in 1982) and McMahon’s occasionally eccentric behavior, the team stayed focused on winning as it methodically rolled through the schedule, losing just once along the way (see Dec. 2). In the playoffs, the Bears shut out both the Giants in the Divisional round (21-0) and Rams in the NFC Championship game (24-0).

Their opponent for Super Bowl XX on January 26, 1986 was the New England Patriots. The Patriots, under Head Coach Raymond Berry, had finished with an 11-5 record and, due to tiebreakers, in third place in the AFC East. Still, it was good enough for a wild card spot in the playoffs, and they defeated the Jets, Raiders, and – most stunningly – the Dolphins to win the AFC title. While not in the same class as the Bears, they had a solid defense headlined by linebackers Andre Tippett and Steve Nelson, CB Raymond Clayborn, and FS Fred Marion. Veteran QB Steve Grogan had performed capably when starter Tony Eason went down with an injury, the offensive line boasted G John Hannah and OT Brian Holloway, and FB Craig James ran for 1227 yards.

The 73,818 fans in attendance at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, as well as those watching the telecast, anticipated a big win by the Bears, and that is what they got. The high point of the game for the Patriots came when Payton fumbled during the second play of the contest and LB Don Blackmon recovered for New England at the Chicago 19 yard line. However, TE Lin Dawson couldn’t catch Eason’s throw on the first play, and after going three-and-out, they had to settle for a 36-yard field goal by Tony Franklin. They would not score again until the fourth quarter, when it no longer mattered.

Coach Berry had hoped to surprise the Bears by coming out throwing, and the Patriots did so in their first six plays – the result was five incompletions and a sack. Meanwhile, the Chicago offense took command. McMahon threw a 43-yard pass to WR Willie Gault that set up a 28-yard Kevin Butler field goal. The Bears defense forced turnovers, including two fumbles on successive plays forced by Dent, and after a second Butler field goal and 11-yard run by FB Matt Suhey, the score was 13-3 at the end of the first quarter.

It was 23-3 at halftime, with McMahon having scored on a two-yard run and Butler adding a third field goal. New England was held to -5 rushing yards and -14 net passing yards for an overall result of -19 total yards and one first down in the first half. Eason had already been replaced by Grogan after going 0 for 6 passing and being sacked three times.

If there was any doubt that the Bears would prevail, it was removed in the third quarter as they accumulated three more touchdowns – one by McMahon, one on an interception return by CB Reggie Phillips, and one by Perry (to the annoyance of Walter Payton, who didn’t get to join the scoring parade in this, the only Super Bowl appearance of his long and great career).

WR Irving Fryar scored the only touchdown for the Patriots early in the fourth quarter on an eight-yard pass from Grogan. The Bears added two more points when reserve DT Henry Waechter sacked Grogan in the end zone, and the final score was 46-10. It was the biggest Super Bowl winning margin up to that time.

The Bears overwhelmed New England in every way, accumulating 408 total yards to 123. Richard Dent (pictured at right) was singled out as the game’s MVP, but the entire defensive unit had recorded seven sacks and forced four fumbles – all of which they recovered – plus two interceptions. As had occurred all season, the defense had overshadowed the offense, and certainly the offense benefited greatly from the turnovers and inability of the Patriots to move the ball. Jim McMahon completed 12 of 20 passes for 256 yards with no TDs or interceptions. Walter Payton had 61 rushing yards on 22 carries, and Matt Suhey was right behind with 11 attempts for 52 yards and a TD. Willie Gault (pictured at bottom) ripped the Patriots secondary for 129 yards on four pass receptions.

Playing catchup long after the game had effectively been decided, Steve Grogan completed 17 of 30 passes for 177 yards with the late TD and two interceptions. WR Stanley Morgan led the receivers with 7 catches for 70 yards. The Patriots ran the ball just 11 times for a grand total of 7 yards.

The forced coaching marriage of Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka ended in the offseason when the brash defensive coordinator was hired to coach the Philadelphia Eagles; he was replaced by Vince Tobin. The Bears went 14-2 in 1986 but lost to Washington in the Divisional round of the playoffs. The Patriots again went 11-5, this time winning the AFC East, but also lost in the Divisional round.

The Chicago Bears displayed plenty of swagger and personality as they dominated the NFL from beginning to end in 1985; their rugged legacy of excellence has not dimmed over the ensuing years.

January 25, 2010

1998: Terrell Davis Runs Broncos Past Packers in Super Bowl XXXII

In four appearances in the Super Bowl prior to the 1997 season, the Denver Broncos had experienced only disappointment. In three of them, John Elway had been the quarterback and had taken criticism for coming up short in the biggest game. He was 37 years old and in his 15th season in ’97, and time was running short. Head Coach Mike Shanahan’s team had gone 13-3 in 1996, only to lose in the Divisional round of the playoffs, but came back with a 12-4 record that was good enough for second place in the AFC West and a wild card spot. Elway had a typically outstanding year, throwing for 3635 yards and a career-high 27 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. WR Rod Smith (70 receptions, 1180 yards) and TE Shannon Sharpe (72 catches, 1107 yards) provided reliable targets. Third-year RB Terrell Davis (pictured), with 1750 rushing yards and a league-leading 15 TDs on the ground, supplied a key ingredient to the offense.

Denver easily got past Jacksonville in the Wild Card playoff and then defeated Kansas City in the next round (the team they had finished behind in the division) and Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship.

The NFC’s representative in Super Bowl XXXII was the Green Bay Packers, who were the defending champions. Under Head Coach Mike Holmgren, they had matched their 13-3 record of ’96 in winning the NFC Central. They featured QB Brett Favre (pictured below), who was the Associated Press NFL MVP for the third consecutive year (tied, this time, with Detroit RB Barry Sanders). Favre had led the NFL with 35 TD passes, 12 of them to WR Antonio Freeman (81 receptions, 1243 yards) and 7 more to WR Robert Brooks (60 catches, 1010 yards). Pro Bowl RB Dorsey Levens ran for 1435 yards and caught 53 passes as well. The solid defense featured DE Reggie White and SS LeRoy Butler.

The Packers defeated the Buccaneers in the Divisional round and San Francisco to repeat as conference champions. They were 12-point favorites entering Super Bowl XXXII, and the NFC had won the previous 13 straight NFL championships.

There were 68,912 fans on hand at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium for the game on January 25, 1998. Favre wasted no time, driving the Packers to the first score of the game in a four-minute opening possession that included three passes for 48 yards to Freeman, including a 22-yard TD pass. Denver responded in kind, featuring Davis carrying the ball five times for 42 yards; he capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run. Elway completed no passes on the possession, but had a 10-yard scramble to set up first-and-goal. The score stood at 7-7 at the end of the first quarter.

The Broncos took advantage of Green Bay turnovers to score 10 more points in the second quarter. First, DE Neil Smith recovered a Favre fumble that set up a 51-yard field goal by Jason Elam. Then SS Tyrone Braxton intercepted a pass that resulted in Denver’s offense going 45 yards in eight plays, ending with a two-yard run by Elway.

Down 17-7, the Packers fought back with a long drive of 17 plays that used up over seven minutes and ended in a Favre touchdown pass to TE Mark Chmura with twelve seconds left in the half.

Denver had missed the running of Terrell Davis for much of the second quarter, due to his taking a kick in the head, after rushing for 62 yards on 9 carries. He fumbled on the first play of the second half, with CB Tyrone Williams recovering for Green Bay. Ryan Longwell followed up with a 27-yard field goal to tie the game at 17-17.

The Broncos came back as Elway and Davis, making up for the fumble and having shaken off the effects of the injury, keyed a 13-play, 92-yard scoring drive. Eight of the plays were runs by Davis, including the one-yard touchdown that put Denver back in the lead at 24-17. Elway completed a 36-yard pass to WR Ed McCaffrey and, in a third-and-six situation, ran for eight yards that included a dive at the end to give the Broncos a first-and-goal.

After FS Eugene Robinson intercepted an Elway pass in the end zone, it was Brett Favre’s turn. The Packers again tied the score early in the fourth quarter, once more on a Favre pass to Freeman of 13 yards. Neither team was able to move the ball in its next possession as they traded punts. With 3:27 remaining, Denver took over just inside Green Bay territory. Thanks to a 15-yard face mask penalty and an Elway screen pass to FB Howard Griffith that covered 23 yards, the Broncos had first-and-goal at the eight yard line. They were backed up by holding penalty, but Davis responded with a 17-yard run to the one, and scored his third TD of the game untouched from there.

With time running out, the Packers charged down the field into Denver territory. However, a fourth-down pass by Favre was batted away by LB John Mobley and the Broncos were champions by a 31-24 score.

Terrell Davis was the game’s MVP, having run the ball 30 times for 157 yards with the three touchdowns. John Elway (pictured at right) had modest statistics, as he completed 12 of 22 passes for 123 yards with an interception, but made key runs (including a score) among his 17 yards on five carries and guided the offense well. Shannon Sharpe caught the most passes for the Broncos, with 5 (for 38 yards), while Ed McCaffrey was the leader in receiving yards with 45 on two catches.

For Green Bay, Brett Favre had 25 completions in 42 passing attempts for 256 yards and three TDs along with an interception. Antonio Freeman (pictured at bottom) caught 9 passes for 126 yards and two scores. Dorsey Levens ran effectively, with 90 yards on 19 carries; he also caught 6 passes for another 56 yards.

Denver repeated as champion in 1998 with an even stronger season in what was Elway’s last year; after all the Super Bowl disappointments in his Hall of Fame career, he capped it with two titles. The Packers were back in the playoffs in ’98, but as a wild card team that lost in the first round. They would not be back in the postseason until 2001.

January 24, 2010

1982: 49ers Defeat Bengals in Super Bowl XVI

The teams that met in Super Bowl XVI following the 1981 NFL season were both new participants and were not favored to be playing for a title at the beginning of the year. The San Francisco 49ers, under innovative third-year Head Coach Bill Walsh, had gone 6-10 in 1980 (and, moreover, had back-to-back 2-14 seasons in 1978 and ’79) and didn’t give cause for optimism when they lost two of the first three games in ’81. But they caught fire and went 12-1 the rest of the way, winning the NFC West with a 13-3 overall record. In his first full season as the starting quarterback, Joe Montana (pictured) broke out in a big way as he passed for 3565 yards and led the league with a 63.7 completion percentage. WR Dwight Clark may not have been fast, but he was reliable and caught 85 passes for 1105 yards. The defense had three rookies starting in the secondary, but CB Ronnie Lott and FS Dwight Hicks rose to the occasion.

The Cincinnati Bengals, coached by Forrest Gregg, were also coming off a 6-10 season in ’80. They dominated the AFC Central with a conference-best 12-4 record in ’81. Along with their new tiger-striped uniforms, another new addition was rookie WR Cris Collinsworth, who caught 67 passes for 1009 yards. Along with TE Dan Ross (71 receptions, 910 yards), they helped veteran QB Ken Anderson revitalize his career as he threw for a career-high 3754 yards and led the NFL in passing (98.4). FB Pete Johnson led the ground attack with 1077 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The 49ers defeated the Giants in the Divisional round and then won a thrilling 28-27 NFC Championship game over Dallas. Cincinnati got past Buffalo in the Divisional playoff and handily beat the Chargers for the AFC title on a bitterly cold day that gounded San Diego’s potent aerial attack.

Super Bowl XVI was held at the Pontiac Silverdome on January 24, 1982 with 81,270 in attendance. It was the first such contest to be held in a cold-weather city, but while the weather conditions were icy in the Detroit area, inside the domed stadium it was a comfortable 70 degrees. The Bengals got the first break of the day as 49ers RB Amos Lawrence fumbled the opening kickoff and Cincinnati recovered at the San Francisco 26 yard line. But six plays later, Hicks intercepted a badly thrown pass by Anderson at the five and returned it 27 yards.

The 49ers proceeded to drive down field, with Montana effective on short passes and, on a double-reverse, hit TE Charle Young for a 14-yard gain on a third-and-one play. The 68-yard, 11-play drive ended with a one-yard quarterback sneak by Montana for a touchdown and 7-0 lead.

Cincinnati drove deep into San Francisco territory, but early in the second quarter they again turned the ball over as Collinsworth was stripped by CB Eric Wright after making a 19-yard gain and CB Lynn Thomas recovered for the 49ers at their own eight yard line. Montana again led a methodical drive, going 92 yards on 12 plays and ending up with another touchdown, this time on an 11-yard pass to RB Earl Cooper.

San Francisco placekicker Ray Wersching squibbed the ensuing kickoff, and Bengals WR David Verser fumbled; while Cincinnati recovered, it was at their three yard line. Seven plays later the Bengals punted and the 49ers drove to a 22-yard field goal by Wersching with 15 seconds left in the half. That wasn’t it for the first half scoring, however – Wersching again squibbed the kickoff (what he referred to as a “knuckleball”), taking advantage of the artificial turf and its tendency to make the ball bounce unpredictably, and once more the Bengals had difficulty fielding the kick as RB Archie Griffin fumbled at the 11 yard line. San Francisco’s LB Milt McColl recovered at the four, and Wersching booted a 26-yard field goal with five seconds left to provide the 49ers with a 20-0 halftime lead.

Cincinnati came out strong in the third quarter, driving 83 yards in nine plays highlighted by a 13-yard Anderson pass to WR Isaac Curtis on a flea flicker play. Anderson ended the possession with a five-yard TD run. Later in the quarter the Bengals drove deep into 49ers territory once again, highlighted by a 49-yard Anderson-to-Collinsworth pass and a two-yard run by Pete Johnson on fourth-and-one at the Niner five. With first-and-goal at the three, Anderson handed off to the power-running Johnson once more, who bulled down to the one. On second down, it was Johnson again, attempting to follow All-Pro OT Anthony Munoz into the end zone from the left side but being held to no gain. Anderson tried a quick pass to his right to RB Charles Alexander, who was hit hard by LB Dan Bunz and stopped short of the goal. Now with fourth-and-inches, the Bengals went back to Johnson and he attempted to score over right tackle but was stopped by Bunz and LB Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds. The 49ers defense had held.

The 49ers punted following the ensuing possession and the Bengals got the ball back on their own 47. Now in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati again drove deep into San Francisco territory, this time scoring on a four-yard TD pass from Anderson to Dan Ross. With the score 20-14, the Niners responded by turning conservative, abandoning the short passing game and featuring the ground attack. The 50-yard drive ended with a 40-yard Wersching field goal and resulting nine-point lead.

With just over five minutes remaining in the game, Eric Wright picked off an Anderson pass at midfield that effectively sealed the win. Ray Wersching kicked his fourth field goal of the contest from 23 yards out to pad the lead at 26-14. Cincinnati scored once more on a three-yard Anderson-to-Ross pass with 15 seconds left, but any chance for a miracle finish was ended when the 49ers recovered the onside kick that followed. The final score was 26-21.

The Bengals outgained the Niners, 356 yards to 275, but were undone by four turnovers (to San Francisco’s one) and the failure to score in the third quarter thanks to the goal line stand. Joe Montana, the game’s MVP, completed 14 of 22 passes for 157 yards and a TD with no interceptions. Dwight Clark and the other starting wide receiver, Freddie Solomon, both caught four passes, while Solomon had the most yards with 52 to Clark’s 45. The running game accounted for 127 yards on 40 attempts, with Ricky Patton topping the group with 55 yards on 17 carries.

Cincinnati’s Ken Anderson (pictured below) had to pass often, 34 times in all, and completed 25 of them for 300 yards and two touchdowns as well as two interceptions. Dan Ross set a Super Bowl record (tied three times since) with 11 pass receptions, for 104 yards and two scores. Cris Collinsworth accumulated 107 yards on his 5 catches. Pete Johnson was held to just 36 yards on 14 rushes.

Summing up the feeling of coming up short after an outstanding season, Anderson said, “When you walk out on the field for this game, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. And when you walk off after the game, and you haven’t won, it’s the worst feeling in the world.”

San Francisco fell back to earth in the strike-shortened ’82 season, going 3-6, but then commenced on a remarkable run in which the team never had fewer than 10 wins in any of the next 16 seasons – until 1999, long after Montana and Walsh were gone from the scene. There would be four more championships in that span. Cincinnati made the playoffs again in 1982 with a 7-2 tally, lost in the first round, and fell into mediocrity for most of the next five years until returning to the postseason – and a Super Bowl rematch with the 49ers – following the 1988 campaign.

January 23, 2010

2005: Eagles Win NFC Title on 4th Try, Beating Falcons

By the 2004 season, the Philadelphia Eagles were becoming regular participants in the NFC Championship game, but had yet to win under Head Coach Andy Reid. Since the 2001 season they had made it to the conference title game in three consecutive seasons - in ‘01, traveling to St. Louis where they lost a hard-fought battle to the favored Rams; in 2002, the final season at Veterans Stadium, they hosted Tampa Bay and were humiliated, 27-10; and in ’03 it was the Carolina Panthers coming to Philadelphia and winning, 14-3.

The Eagles had boosted their heavily pass-oriented West Coast offense for 2004 with the addition of WR Terrell Owens to provide QB Donovan McNabb (pictured at left) with a proven All-Pro target. The brash wide receiver didn’t disappoint, catching 77 passes for 1200 yards and 14 touchdowns before being sidelined late in the season by a high ankle sprain. McNabb had his best season, throwing for 3875 yards and 31 TDs against just 8 interceptions; his 104.7 passer rating was his career-best. RB Brian Westbrook was an exciting all-purpose talent who ran for 812 yards in 12 games and had another 703 yards on 73 pass receptions. The team rolled out to a 13-1 start and rested its starters in the final two games - once they had locked up the highest seed in the NFC playoffs - ending up at 13-3 atop the NFC East. They handily defeated Minnesota in the Divisional round, with Owens still sidelined, as he would be for the conference title game.

The team they faced for the NFC Championship was the Atlanta Falcons, who went 11-5 in winning the NFC South under Head Coach Jim Mora, Jr. QB Michael Vick had his detractors as a passer, but was a dangerous runner who accumulated 902 yards on 120 carries. Together with RB Warrick Dunn, who ran for 1106 yards, they spearheaded the top rushing attack in the league. Pro Bowl TE Alge Crumpler led the club with 48 pass receptions, while the defense featured DE Patrick Kerney and LB Keith Brooking.

The weather at Lincoln Financial Field was bitterly cold for the game on January 23, 2005 with a wind chill factor between zero and five below. The Eagles scored on their second possession, after Atlanta’s Chris Mohr punted into the gusty wind for just eight yards. Following a 36-yard run by Westbrook (pictured), RB Dorsey Levens plowed four yards into the end zone for a touchdown.

Atlanta came back with a 17-play, nine-minute drive to the Philadelphia two yard line, but the Eagles defense refused to yield as 254-pound RB T.J. Duckett was thrown for a loss on first-and-goal, Vick was sacked by DT Hollis Thomas on third down, and the Falcons ultimately had to settle for a 23-yard Jay Feely field goal. The Eagles responded with a 45-yard pass play from McNabb to WR Greg Lewis down to the Falcons four yard line. From there, TE Chad Lewis (pictured at top) made an outstanding catch of a high throw in the corner of the end zone, just keeping both feet inbounds to score the TD and extend Philadelphia’s lead to 14-3.

The Falcons came back strong as they drove 70 yards in five plays capped by a 10-yard touchdown run by Dunn with just over two minutes left in the half. The 14-10 score stood at the intermission.

The first half had been highly competitive, but the Eagles dominated the second half. David Akers kicked field goals of 31 and 34 yards in the third quarter, the second following an interception of a Vick pass by FS Brian Dawkins, who returned the ball 19 yards to the Atlanta 11. The Falcons couldn’t get the offense going even after getting the wind advantage in the fourth quarter as the Eagles defense stacked the line and forced Vick to pass from the pocket.

With 3:21 left in the game, McNabb threw another TD pass to Lewis, this from two yards, to thrill the hometown crowd of 67,717 and sew up the win. It was costly – the tight end sprained his foot and was lost for the Super Bowl. But the Eagles had finally won the NFC Championship in their fourth try by a score of 27-10.

Donovan McNabb completed 17 of 26 passes for 180 yards and two TDs with none picked off; he also ran for 32 yards on 10 carries. Brian Westbrook led the team both in rushing, with 96 yards on 16 attempts, and pass receptions with 5 for another 39 yards. Greg Lewis led the team in receiving yards with 65 on two catches.

The Eagles defense effectively hemmed Michael Vick in and sacked him four times – DE Derrick Burgess (pictured above left) had an outstanding game, accounting for two of the sacks. Vick completed just 11 of 24 passes for 136 yards with an interception. After the two solid drives in the first half, the Falcons running game was ineffectual; they were outrun by the Eagles, 156 yards to 99. Warrick Dunn led the team with 59 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. TE Alge Crumpler was Atlanta’s top receiver with 4 catches for 49 yards, although most memorable was a crunching hit he took from Dawkins after one of them (pictured below).

Terrell Owens was back for the Super Bowl, but Philadelphia fell short against the New England Patriots. The Eagles were mired in controversy in 2005, as the mercurial Terrell Owens wore out his welcome in Philadelphia and Donovan McNabb went down with an injury; they would return to the postseason in 2006. Atlanta dropped out of playoff contention the next three seasons, and Michael Vick’s career was derailed due to legal problems. Coach Mora was gone after the ’06 season, and there would be two more coaching changes before the Falcons returned to the postseason.

January 22, 2010

1973: Colts Trade Johnny Unitas to Chargers

On January 22, 1973 the 17-season Baltimore Colts career of legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas officially came to an end. He was traded to the San Diego Chargers for unspecified future considerations. The deal was not a complete surprise, since it was clear during the 1972 season that Unitas’ tenure in Baltimore was coming to an end; the arrival of Joe Thomas as general manager assured that a big overhaul of the team was in the works. But the dispatching of Unitas in particular marked the end of a very significant era in the franchise’s history.

The Colts had a new owner, Bob Irsay, who in turn brought in Thomas to make changes. The club had been a perennial contender since the late 50s under Weeb Ewbank as head coach, followed by Don Shula and, after Shula moved to Miami, Don McCafferty. They had won the Super Bowl following the 1970 season and had made it to the AFC Championship game in ’71, where they were shut out by Shula’s up-and-coming Dolphins. The new general manager believed it was time to replace aging veterans with new talent.

Unitas began the season as the starting quarterback, and in one memorable performance against Joe Namath and the New York Jets passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns. But the Colts lost that game, and were 1-4 when Thomas fired McCafferty. McCafferty had refused to bench Unitas, but Thomas ordered the interim coach, John Sandusky, to do so. Unitas found himself second on the depth chart behind mediocre Marty Domres, and the team ended up with a 5-9 record. He appeared in the fourth quarter of his final home game against Buffalo in the 12th week, and threw two passes that included his last TD pass in a Colts uniform – a bomb that covered 63 yards to WR Eddie Hinton. Unitas left the field to an ecstatic ovation from the 55,390 fans in attendance.

The San Diego Chargers had decided to break ties with their veteran starting quarterback, John Hadl, as well. Hadl was an outstanding passer and, in the years when the Chargers featured the aerial game under Head Coach Sid Gillman, that made him a good fit. But Harland Svare was now the coach, and his offensive philosophy was run-oriented. Hadl didn’t take well to the change and was traded to the Rams. With a void at quarterback, San Diego decided to gamble that Unitas, at age 40, still had something left.

The 1973 Chargers season was chaotic and unsuccessful. The record dropped from 4-9-1 in ’72 to 2-11-1 for a second consecutive last place finish in the AFC West. Svare didn’t make it to the end, resigning after the eighth contest (although he did remain the GM). Unitas didn’t last even that long. The arm that had made him an all-time great was worn out, and he played in a total of five games. The high points were two TD passes in a 34-7 win over Buffalo and 215 yards through the air in a loss to the Bengals.

By the second half of the season rookie Dan Fouts had taken over the starting job and, when Unitas was deactivated for the season finale, he went back to Baltimore to watch the Colts play. He retired during the 1974 training camp.

Unitas played at least a couple of years too many, but the bulk of his long career attests to his having been one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football history (arguably the greatest, period). Almost completely overlooked after his college career at Louisville, he came out of nowhere (and semi-pro ball after failing to make the Steelers) to lead the Colts to back-to-back championships in 1958 and ’59 and a Super Bowl-winning season in 1970.

Along the way, Unitas set 22 NFL passing records, retiring with 40,239 yards through the air and 290 TD passes. He was a three-time league MVP and was named to 10 Pro Bowls. His 47-game streak with at least one TD pass hasn’t come close to being broken, even with rules changes and the development of sophisticated passing offenses that have encouraged teams to throw far more often and thus changed the complexion of the game. Unitas won 119 of his starts and set a standard with 26 three-hundred yard passing games that few have surpassed in the years since. The list can go on and on, right up to his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Johnny Unitas personified the cool, gunslinger-style quarterback and had great mechanics, a quick release, and an excellent touch on his passes from any distance. In an era when quarterbacks typically called their own plays, Unitas was considered an outstanding tactician with a rare gift for improvisation on the field. And his toughness is attested to in his starting 92 consecutive games at one point in his career, a record at the time, and when quarterbacks weren’t protected by the officials nearly to the degree that they are now.

The departure from Baltimore was shabby and the final year in a Chargers uniform was nothing more than a footnote, but they do not dim the overall career that was one of the best in pro football history.

January 21, 2010

List of the Day: First 1000-Yard Rusher for Each Current NFC Franchise

(In chronological order)

Bears: Beattie Feathers, 1934 (pictured above)
(119 att., 1004 yds., 8.4 avg., 8 TD)

Eagles: Steve Van Buren, 1947
(217 att., 1008 yds., 4.6 avg., 13 TD)

Packers: Tony Canadeo, 1949
(208 att., 1052 yds., 5.1 avg., 4 TD)

49ers: Joe Perry, 1953 (pictured below)
(192 att., 1018 yds., 5.3 avg., 10 TD)

Cardinals: John David Crow, 1960
(183 att., 1071 yds., 5.9 avg., 6 TD)

Rams: Dick Bass, 1962 (pictured at bottom #22)
(196 att., 1033 yds., 5.3 avg., 6 TD)

Giants: Ron Johnson, 1970 (pictured below #30)
(263 att., 1027 yds., 3.9 avg., 8 TD)

Redskins: Larry Brown, 1970 (pictured below #43)
(237 att., 1125 yds., 4.7 avg., 5 TD)

Lions: Steve Owens, 1971 (pictured below #36)
(246 att., 1035 yds., 4.2 avg., 8 TD)

Cowboys: Calvin Hill, 1972 (pictured below #35)
(245 att., 1036 yds., 4.2 avg., 6 TD)

Falcons: Dave Hampton, 1975
(250 att., 1002 yds., 4.0 avg., 5 TD)

Vikings: Chuck Foreman, 1975 (pictured at bottom #44)
(280 att., 1070 yds., 3.8 avg., 13 TD)

Buccaneers: Ricky Bell, 1979
(283 att., 1263 yds., 4.5 avg., 7 TD)

Saints: Chuck Muncie, 1979
(238 att., 1198 yds., 5.0 avg., 11 TD)

Seahawks: Curt Warner, 1983
(335 att., 1449 yds., 4.3 avg., 13 TD)

Panthers: Anthony Johnson, 1996
(300 att., 1120 yds., 3.7 avg., 6 TD)

NOTE TO READERS: I'm introducing a new feature today, the List of the Day. These will be interspersed among the regular daily entries, especially during the offseason months. In future, related lists can be tracked down by the Labels at the bottom of each post (just as you can track down all posts for a particular team and season currently).

January 20, 2010

1991: Giants Dethrone Two-Time Champion 49ers for NFC Title

For most of the 1990 season, it seemed as though the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants were mirroring each other while on a collision course for supremacy in the NFC. Both teams started out with 10-0 records. A week before they were due to square off at Candlestick Park, both lost for the first time, and to division rivals in each instance – the 49ers falling 28-17 to the Rams and the Giants by 31-13 at Philadelphia. San Francisco won the ensuing matchup, 7-3.

The 49ers, under second-year Head Coach George Seifert, had won the previous two Super Bowls and looked poised to join the Packers as winners of three straight NFL titles. They ended the ’90 regular season with a league-best 14-2 record, coasting to first place in the NFC West, and defeated Washington in the Divisional playoff round. To be sure, weaknesses were beginning to show due to wear and tear as safety Ronnie Lott missed five games and RB Roger Craig limped through a sub-par season. Still, QB Joe Montana and WR Jerry Rice, who led the league with 100 pass receptions, 1502 receiving yards, and 13 touchdown catches, provided plenty of heroics on offense.

The Giants, coached by Bill Parcells, ended the regular season with several question marks. Their conservative, ball-control offense, led by QB Phil Simms, suffered only 14 turnovers. The defense, featuring LB Lawrence Taylor (pictured at bottom), was top-ranked in the NFL and also had solid performances from LB Pepper Johnson, NT Erik Howard, and veteran CB Everson Walls. However, the team lost three of its last six games and Simms and starting RB Rodney Hampton were eliminated from the postseason by injuries. To be sure, the Giants still won the NFC East with a 13-3 record, and they crushed the Bears in the Divisional playoff. But they were dependent upon unproven backup QB Jeff Hostetler, operating an offense rendered even more conservative, and 33-year-old RB Ottis Anderson (pictured at top).

There were 65,750 on hand at Candlestick Park on January 20, 1991 for the NFC Championship game. The first half ended at 6-6 with both teams booting two field goals apiece – from 47 and 35 yards by San Francisco’s Mike Cofer and 28 and 42 yards by veteran placekicker Matt Bahr (pictured at right).

The 49ers finally scored a touchdown in the third quarter as Montana connected with WR John Taylor on a 61-yard play. Bahr narrowed the margin to 13-9 with a 46-yard field goal late in the same period.

Montana was knocked out of the game with a broken finger after being sacked with under ten minutes remaining in the game. Meanwhile, the Giants utilized a fake punt that turned into a 30-yard run by LB Gary Reasons, setting up a fourth field goal by Bahr from 38 yards that made it a one-point contest.

49ers backup QB Steve Young kept the ball on the ground, throwing just one pass, and it was almost enough. But with 2:36 remaining, Lawrence Taylor recovered a fumble by Craig. It was the only turnover of the game, and a costly one. Hostetler, completing two key passes, moved the Giants 33 yards in six plays into field goal range. With time running out, Bahr kicked his fifth field goal, from 42 yards, and the Giants were the winners by a 15-13 margin.

In the defensive struggle, New York won the battle for ball control, keeping the offense on the field for 39 minutes and outrushing the 49ers, 152 yards to 39. Even with San Francisco’s superior air attack, the Giants had the upper hand in total yards with 311 to 240. Jeff Hostetler (pictured at left) performed capably, completing 15 of 27 passes for 176 yards and, most importantly, not throwing any interceptions. Ottis Anderson was the top rusher with 67 yards on 20 carries. WR Mark Ingram and TE Mark Bavaro each caught five passes, with Ingram gaining the most yards (82, to the tight end’s 54). Matt Bahr, in his first season with the Giants after nine years in Cleveland, made five of his six field goal attempts, which were crucial.

Before having to leave the game, Joe Montana completed 18 of 26 passes for 190 yards and a TD with none picked off. Thanks to the long touchdown, John Taylor had the most receiving yards with 75 on two receptions, while Jerry Rice had the most catches with 5, but for just 54 yards. The weak rushing attack was led by Roger Craig, with 26 yards on 8 attempts.

New York went on to defeat Buffalo in a closely-fought Super Bowl that was decided by one point. However, Coach Parcells left in the offseason and the Giants slumped under his successor, Ray Handley. The 49ers missed the playoffs in ’91 despite a 10-6 record, but rebounded to make the playoffs in each of the following six seasons with one Super Bowl victory mixed in.