April 29, 2010

2006: Texans Draft Mario Williams 1st Overall Ahead of Bush & Young

After steadily progressing in their first three seasons in the NFL, the Houston Texans dropped to a league-worst 2-14 record in 2005. Head Coach Dom Capers and his staff were dismissed, and offensive-minded Gary Kubiak was hired in his place.

However, with the first pick in the NFL draft on April 29, 2006 the Texans opted for help on defense and made official the selection of North Carolina State DE Mario Williams as their choice (he had actually been signed to a contract the night before).

The decision drew criticism from both commentators and fans. At a draft party held at Reliant Stadium, many of the attendees booed the selection of Williams and began chanting “Reg-gie! Reg-gie!” in reference to Reggie Bush, the star running back and Heisman Trophy winner from USC. There had also been sentiment for picking a local favorite, QB Vince Young from Texas. They ended up being the next two players drafted, by the Saints and Titans, respectively.

Not all of the reviews were critical, to be sure. As one scout said, “I like the Texans’ pick of Mario Williams over Reggie Bush. If you tell me I can have a great running back or I can have a great defensive end, I’ll take the defensive end every time. He’ll have a longer career, he’s on the field for more plays, and defensive ends are harder to find than running backs.”

The 6’7”, 295-pound Williams had chosen to leave school early to enter the draft, but was considered by scouts to be ready for the NFL. In 2005, he had recorded 62 tackles (24 of them for a loss) and 14.5 sacks over the course of 12 games. Moreover, he filled a clear need for a Houston defense that had ranked next to last in the league, including 32nd against the run and 24th vs. the pass (to be sure, they ranked 30th in total offense as well). New defensive coordinator Richard Smith was replacing the 3-4 scheme favored by Capers with a 4-3 alignment, and Williams seemed a good fit for the revamped defensive line.

Initially, the critics appeared to be vindicated by the results of the 2006 season. While the team’s record improved to 6-10, Williams suffered through an injury-marred and inconsistent campaign and recorded just 4.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Bush proved to be a potent complement to power runner Deuce McAllister, accumulating 1523 all-purpose yards (742 on 88 pass receptions alone) as the Saints ranked first in team offense and made it to the postseason. Vince Young showed great promise with the Titans, passing for 2199 yards and running for another 552 while being selected Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press.

The Houston offense ranked 28th in the NFL. QB David Carr, the first player ever drafted by the club in 2002, continued to be mired in mediocrity. RB Ron Dayne led the team in rushing with 612 yards. A revamping followed in the offseason.

However, the situation for Williams, especially in comparison to Bush and Young, shifted significantly from 2007 onward. Healthy and playing with greater confidence, he tied for third in the league in sacks with 14. In ’08, he had another 12 sacks, was a first team All-NFL selection of The Sporting News and second team pick by the AP, and went to the Pro Bowl for the first time. That was followed up in 2009 with another Sporting News first team All-NFL pick and second Pro Bowl invitation.

Reggie Bush failed to build upon his fine rookie season and his performance was decidedly uneven. While a dynamic player with outstanding outside running ability and good receiving skills out of the backfield who contributed to a championship team, he had durability issues and did not fulfill the hopes that he could be an every-down running back – let alone an elite performer. He averaged just 3.7 yards-per-carry in his first three seasons (although he also caught 213 passes). Strictly a role player, his numbers in all categories declined in 2009 - but his postseason performance was solid, in particular an impressive showing against Arizona in the NFC Divisional playoff.

Vince Young struggled in his second season and was benched for virtually all of his third; brought back into the starting lineup midway through the ’09 campaign with favorable results, his career is at an uncertain stage.

While all three careers are very much in progress, after four seasons, the selection of Williams in the top spot of the first round in ’06 has looked more justified with each passing year.

April 28, 2010

1981: Giants Draft Lawrence Taylor in 1st Round

Since appearing in the 1963 NFL Championship game, the New York Giants had settled into a long period of mediocrity. From the advent of divisional play in 1933 through ’63, the club had gone 226-123-19 with 16 postseason appearances and three championships. From 1964 through 1980, the record was 84-156-4; not only were there no playoff appearances, but the Giants posted just two records over .500 in that 17-year span.

The performance in 1980 hardly indicated that improvement might be coming anytime soon. New York struggled through an injury-riddled 4-12 season. The linebacker corps had been especially hard hit, with Harry Carson, Brian Kelley, Dan Lloyd, John Skorupan, and Frank Marion all missing time. At one point in November, a free agent named Joe McLaughlin, who had failed to catch on with two clubs in 1979 and was painting houses in Wisconsin for a living, was called in on a Monday, passed his physical, worked out twice, played on special teams the following Sunday and then was in the starting lineup the next week (he actually led the team with 10 tackles). As a result, the Giants ranked 24th in the NFL in total defense (26th against the run, 17th vs. the pass).

On April 28, 1981 the Giants, using the second pick in the first round of the NFL draft, chose Lawrence Taylor, a linebacker from North Carolina (New Orleans used the first pick to take RB George Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner from South Carolina).

There had been some question in the run-up to the draft as to whether New York would take Taylor or UCLA running back Freeman McNeil (eventually chosen by the other New York club, the Jets). Linebacker was considered one of the team’s strengths (at least, with the expectation that all hands would be healthy) and there was a need to improve the running game. The situation was further muddied by talk from some of the veteran players that they would boycott if the team drafted Taylor and gave him the three-year, $1 million deal that his agent was reportedly intending to seek. A ruffled Taylor had sent a telegram to Giants GM George Young the night before the draft asking that they not choose him.

In the end, of course, Young did choose Taylor (he signed a three-year deal, but for $900,000), and it marked a significant step in the reinvigorating of the franchise. Head Coach Ray Perkins, looking ahead to the ’81 season, said “Taylor should start on the weakside for us. He’ll have to earn that, of course, but from everything we’ve seen and everything we know about him, I have no doubt he’ll become a dominating player.”

Perkins was very much on the mark. Playing in a 3-4 defense, Taylor lined up with veteran Brad Van Pelt at the other outside linebacker position and Kelley and Carson on the inside and almost immediately displayed the dominance anticipated for him. He received the most votes in Pro Bowl balloting and was selected as NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press, as well as Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Defense was the key to the Giants finishing 9-7 and grabbing the second wild card spot to make it into the postseason for the first time since that long-ago 1963 title game (they upset Philadelphia, 27-21, in the first round but succumbed to the 49ers in the divisional playoff). While the offense was the lowest-ranked in the league – young QB Phil Simms was still a work in progress, and missed five games due to injury – the defense keyed the improvement. Taylor was a big part of that surge, although there were also key contributions by rookie NT Bill Neill and second-year CB Mark Haynes. Defensive ends George Martin and Gary Jeter had outstanding seasons as well.

Taylor, however, would prove to be not only the unit’s leader over the course of 13 years, but one of the most dominating defensive players in pro football history. At 6’3” and 237 pounds, he re-defined the position of linebacker, proving to be an almost unstoppable pass rusher as well as run-stuffer. More than outstanding outside linebackers of the past, he brought an attacking element into his play that transformed the game and made him a weapon that opposing offenses continually needed to account for. While drug issues eventually dogged him off the field, the intensity level never dropped while on it.

By the time the player known as “LT” retired, he had been named league MVP on one occasion (1986), always notable for a defensive player, and Defensive Player of the Year three times. Taylor was a consensus first team All-Pro eight times and was selected to 10 Pro Bowls. His number 56 was retired by the Giants, and he was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

Thanks to George Young’s personnel moves (hired as GM in 1979 in a compromise between the feuding team owners, Wellington Mara and his nephew Tim), which so notably included the drafting of Taylor and, in 1983, the promotion of Bill Parcells to head coach, the Giants again became a perennial contender. From 1981 through ’90, the last season with Parcells at the helm, the team had a 90-61 record, went to the postseason six times, and won the Super Bowl twice. Arguably more than any other player on the team, Taylor personified the change in attitude and direction.

April 27, 2010

1984: Chuck Fusina Throws 5 TD Passes as Stars Dominate Breakers

The Philadelphia Stars were the most successful team in the United States Football League’s brief history. Coached by Jim Mora, they excelled on both sides of the ball. Typically, the offense was spurred by the running game, in particular star RB Kelvin Bryant. But on April 27, 1984 against the New Orleans Breakers at Veterans Stadium, it was QB Chuck Fusina who was the headliner.

The game was really no contest at all as the Stars rolled over the Breakers, 35-0. To be sure, the running game was successful as always, accumulating 167 yards. Bryant, having missed the three prior contests due to injury, contributed 105 of that total on 17 carries, while his capable backup, Allen Harvin, added another 30 yards on five runs. But the scoring came directly as a result of the aerial attack as Fusina tied the USFL single-game record with five touchdown passes (it was the third of an eventual seven occurrences by five quarterbacks).

The first two TD tosses were to FB David Riley, covering 47 and 13 yards respectively. WR Willie Collier also caught two of the scoring throws, of 19 yards in the second quarter and 8 yards in the third period. In between, also in the third quarter, TE Steve Folsom caught a five-yard pass for a touchdown.

Fusina completed 20 of 26 passes for 250 yards with none picked off. It was an effective and efficient performance by a quarterback who had not been highly regarded in 1983, even though the team made it to the league title game, and was often overshadowed by bigger-name quarterbacks in ’84. Rookie Jim Kelly put up big numbers directing Houston’s “run-and-shoot” offense, and mobile Steve Young did well in Los Angeles. Veterans Cliff Stoudt (Birmingham), John Reaves (Tampa Bay), and Greg Landry (Arizona) all performed capably. Yet in the end, it was Fusina at the top of the passing standings with a 104.7 rating and 31 touchdown passes to just 9 interceptions.

In this game, Bryant led the team in receptions with four (for 27 yards) while four other players caught three passes apiece (Riley, Collier, Folsom, and WR Scott Fitzkee). Riley was the receiving yardage leader with 76.

The defense excelled, holding the usually effective New Orleans running game to just 31 yards on 16 carries (rookie RB Marcus Dupree led with 20 yards on 9 attempts). The passing game was held to 193 net yards and quarterbacks Johnny Walton and Doug Woodward threw a total of four interceptions. All-League CB Garcia Lane accounted for two of the pickoffs.

Philadelphia went on to compile a 16-2 record in once again topping the Atlantic Division – they went on to win the USFL championship with ease. The Breakers, who had been located in Boston in ’83, went 8-10 to finish third in the Southern Division.

What made Philadelphia such a successful team? A look at the postseason honorees in ’84 provides ample evidence - as might be expected, many members of the Stars ended up receiving All-League recognition (by either the league, The Sporting News, or both). On offense, they included Fusina, Bryant, OT Irv Eatman, G Chuck Commiskey, C Bart Oates, while on defense there were DT Pete Kugler, LB Sam Mills, CB Garcia Lane, and S Mike Lush. Punter Sean Landeta also received recognition from The Sporting News. In addition, and perhaps most significantly, Mora was Coach of the Year and The Sporting News chose President/GM Carl Peterson as Executive of the Year for assembling the talent.

The win over the Breakers was a reflection of the sort of overall ability – from front office to the sideline to the playing field – that allowed the Stars to succeed with such consistency.

April 25, 2010

List of the Day: Best Rushing Seasons, 1960s AFL

Jim Nance

TOP 10
1- Jim Nance, 1966 Boston Patriots
1458 yards, 299 att., 4.9 avg., 11 TD

2- Jim Nance, 1967 Boston Patriots
1216 yards, 269 att., 4.5 avg., 7 TD

3- Hoyle Granger, 1967 Houston Oilers
1194 yards, 236 att., 5.1 avg., 6 TD

4- Paul Lowe, 1965 San Diego Chargers
1121 yards, 222 att., 5.0 avg., 6 TD

5- Clem Daniels, 1963 Oakland Raiders
1099 yards, 215 att., 5.1 avg., 3 TD

6- Cookie Gilchrist, 1962 Buffalo Bills
1096 yards, 214 att., 5.1 avg., 13 TD

7- Mike Garrett, 1967 Kansas City Chiefs
1087 yards, 236 att., 4.6 avg., 9 TD

8- Abner Haynes, 1962 Dallas Texans
1049 yards, 221 att., 4.7 avg., 13 TD

9- Paul Robinson, 1968 Cincinnati Bengals
1023 yards, 238 att., 4.3 avg., 8 TD

10-Charley Tolar, 1962 Houston Oilers
1012 yards, 244 att., 4.1 avg., 7 TD

Hoyle Granger

Paul Lowe

Clem Daniels

Denver Broncos: Cookie Gilchrist, 1965
954 yards, 252 att., 3.8 avg., 6 TD

New York Titans/Jets: Matt Snell, 1964
948 yards, 215 att., 4.4 avg., 5 TD

Miami Dolphins: Jim Kiick, 1968*
621 yards, 165 att., 3.8 avg., 4 TD

*Dolphins joined AFL in 1966

Cookie Gilchrist

Mike Garrett

Abner Haynes

April 24, 2010

1983: Eric Truvillion’s 3 TD Receptions Help Bandits Defeat Federals

The Tampa Bay Bandits had won their first four games in the United States Football League’s inaugural season, but had stumbled in losing two of the next three contests. The loss of veteran QB John Reaves with a broken wrist didn’t help matters.

On April 24, 1983 the Bandits traveled to Washington to take on the lowly (1-6) Federals at RFK Stadium before a sparse crowd of 9070. Jimmy Jordan, a former star at Florida State, had taken over at quarterback. Like Reaves, Jordan wasn’t very mobile and also suffered from a sore shoulder, but he proved to be effective in this, his first start.

It looked like it would be an easy win for the Bandits as they broke out to a 20-6 halftime lead. Jordan hit WR Eric Truvillion with three touchdown passes, of 28, 15, and six yards (the extra point attempt was blocked after the first one). Washington only got on the board thanks to a 94-yard kickoff return by RB Eric Robinson after the first Tampa Bay score (the Bandits blocked the ensuing PAT attempt in turn).

However, sloppy play by the Bandits - they turned the ball over seven times in all - allowed the Federals to nearly pull the game out. First, RB Craig James ran for a 19-yard touchdown to cut the margin to 20-13 in the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, QB Mike Hohensee passed to WR Mike Holmes for a 10-yard TD that tied the score. The Federals gained the lead at 23-20 with a 23-yard Dale Castro field goal, but it didn’t last long.

Jordan took the Bandits to the Washington 15 yard line on the next possession, which culminated in Zenon Andrusyshyn re-tying the game at 23-23 with a 31-yard field goal. CB Leon Williams intercepted a pass to regain possession for Tampa Bay, and with under three minutes remaining RB Carl Franks dashed 18 yards through the middle for the winning touchdown. The final score was 30-23 in favor of the Bandits.

Jimmy Jordan completed 30 of 45 passes for 345 yards with the three touchdowns, but tossed three interceptions as well. Eric Truvillion caught 9 passes for 113 yards with the three scores, while WR Danny Buggs also exceeded a hundred receiving yards with 103 on 7 catches. RB Sam Platt led the club in rushing with 71 yards on 22 carries; he also contributed a further 49 yards on 7 pass receptions.

The two Washington quarterbacks, rookie Mike Hohensee and veteran Joe Gilliam, combined to complete 16 of 37 passes for 213 yards with a TD and four interceptions (Hohensee tossed the TD while Gilliam had three of his passes picked off). Craig James rushed for 60 yards on 15 attempts. WR Joey Walters was the Federals’ top receiver with 7 catches for 85 yards.

Tampa Bay gave up more turnovers than Washington thanks to four fumbles and the three passes picked off, but also won the total yardage battle (452 to 267) and dominated in first downs (31 to 16) and time of possession (35:28 to 24:32). The Federals recorded the only sacks of the contest, however, with three; 1.5 were credited to 15-year veteran DE Coy Bacon.

The Bandits encountered rough going the rest of the way, finishing with an 11-7 record that put them in third place in the Central Division and out of the playoffs. Washington went 4-14 to end up at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, tied with Arizona for the worst record in the league.

Jordan performed well overall, placing fourth among the USFL’s passers (Reaves was 12th) as he completed 60.9 % of his 238 throws for 1831 yards with 14 TDs and 14 interceptions. Eric Truvillion was an All-League selection both by the USFL and The Sporting News as he caught 66 passes for 1080 yards and 15 touchdowns (Danny Buggs grabbed 76 passes for 1146 yards, but with just 5 TDs). Prize rookie Craig James was one of the few bright spots for the Federals as he rushed for 823 yards on 202 carries.

April 23, 2010

1986: Lee Roy Selmon Announces Retirement

It was not a surprise on April 23, 1986 when star DE Lee Roy Selmon announced his retirement. He had not appeared in a game since the Pro Bowl following the ’84 season where he suffered a herniated disk in his back. Selmon was forced to sit out all of 1985, hoping that surgery would not be necessary and that he would be able to return to action. But once he received word that even with surgery there was no certainty of playing again, he made the decision to retire. At the press conference, he said “I’m just thankful I was able to play ten years.”

It had actually been just nine years encompassing 121 regular season games, but a great nine years. Selmon’s retirement marked a significant milestone in Buccaneers history. He was the first player ever drafted by Tampa Bay with the initial overall pick as an expansion team in 1976 (the other new team that year, the Seattle Seahawks, lost a coin toss to the Bucs and chose second). His college credentials at Oklahoma were outstanding, where he had won both the Outland and Lombardi trophies for his play on the line. Head Coach John McKay was looking to emphasize defense in the new team’s first draft, and going with the best defensive player available made sense. In the second round, Tampa Bay picked Selmon’s older brother (by 11 months), Dewey, a defensive tackle (he was moved to linebacker in his second pro season); the two had played together in high school and college, and would now have the opportunity to do so again in the NFL.

The Buccaneers got off to a rough start, even for an expansion team, losing all 14 games in ’76 and the first 26 altogether before finally winning the last two contests of the 1977 season. The defense was the league’s worst in ’76, not helped by Selmon missing half of the campaign due to a knee injury.

The team began to improve in 1977, and Selmon was a key contributor. When they won their first game, at New Orleans, Selmon had three sacks (not yet an official statistic) and 12 tackles. The big breakthrough came in 1979, however, as Tampa Bay went 10-6 and advanced all the way to the NFC Championship game.

The overall performance of the defense was significant to the club’s success in ’79, and not surprisingly, Selmon led the way. Playing at right defensive end in a 3-4 alignment, he recorded 11 sacks (unofficially). He also had 117 tackles and forced three fumbles (with two recoveries, one for a touchdown). For his efforts, Selmon was a consensus first team All-Pro selection, went to the Pro Bowl for the first of six consecutive years, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

Brother Dewey was part of an outstanding group of linebackers that included Richard Wood at the other inside spot and David Lewis and Cecil Johnson on the outside. The secondary was the most effective in the league and consisted of cornerbacks Jeris White and Mike Washington and safeties Mark Cotney and Cedric Brown. The other two starting defensive linemen, nose tackle Randy Crowder and left end Wally Chambers, rounded out the solid unit that ranked first overall in the NFL – they gave up the fewest points (237), total yards (3949), and passing yards (2076).

The Buccaneers failed to sustain the success of 1979 – they sank back to 5-10-1 in ’80 and made it to the postseason just twice more during Selmon’s career.

The 6’3”, 250-pounder was often double- and triple-teamed by opposing offenses, yet his speed, strength, and agility made him an impact player in any event. In 1980, with offenses concentrated on stopping him, Selmon was credited with 72 quarterback “hurries” to go along with nine sacks. In all, he was credited with 78.5 sacks and 380 “hurries” over the course of his career.

Selmon received first or second team All-Pro recognition in five of his nine seasons, and was an All-NFC choice (first or second team) after seven of them. It was hardly surprising that the Buccaneers retired his number 63; he also became the first inductee into the team’s Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium in 2009. Selmon was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995.

Brother Dewey also played well for Tampa Bay (he was named team MVP in 1978) until a thigh injury suffered in training camp knocked him out for the 1981 season; he was traded to San Diego, where he played one year in ’82 prior to retiring.

Pleasant and soft-spoken off the field, Selmon was a terror on it. As Coach McKay put it at the time of Selmon’s selection to the Hall of Fame, “He was almost unblockable. I can’t imagine anyone being better. He was the heart of our team. At a time when we were pretty fair, he was what made us pretty fair.” Doug Williams, the club’s quarterback during much of Selmon’s career, added, “If he had been in a four-man front, they would have banned Lee Roy from the game.”

Maybe the most telling tribute came from an opposing offensive tackle, Ted Albrecht of the Bears, who once told an assistant coach at halftime of a game against the Bucs, “There are four things in the world I don’t want to do under any circumstance. Number one, I don’t want to milk a cobra. Number two, I don’t want to be buried at sea. Number three, I don’t want to get hit in the head with a hockey puck. And number four, I don’t want to play the second half against Lee Roy Selmon.”

April 21, 2010

2001: LA Routs Demons for XFL Title

The 10-game XFL season culminated in a two-round postseason capped by the championship game. On April 21, 2001 the Los Angeles Xtreme hosted the San Francisco Demons at the Memorial Coliseum in the contest dubbed the “Million Dollar Game”.

The Xtreme, coached by Al Luginbill, had won the Western Division with a 7-3 record. They were the league’s highest-scoring team (235 points) while QB Tommy Maddox was the individual leader in passing yards (2186) and touchdown passes (18). Maddox (pictured above) had underachieved in the NFL with the Broncos, Rams, and Giants, but after time away from the game and a stint playing arena football, showed improvement as a pocket passer. His primary target was WR Jeremaine Copeland, who led the XFL with 67 receptions (16 more than the runner-up, Birmingham’s Stepfret Williams). At the other wide receiver spot, Darnell McDonald led the league with eight touchdowns.

San Francisco, under Head Coach Jim Skipper, had come in second to Los Angeles in the Western Division with a mediocre 5-5 record (they gained a playoff spot over Memphis thanks to tiebreakers). QB Mike Pawlawski was the league leader in completion percentage (62.6) while finishing second to Maddox in passing yards (1659) and third in TD passes (12). WR Jimmy Cunningham was the top receiver with a third-ranked 50 catches for 408 yards.

The Xtreme defeated the Chicago Enforcers in the first round of the playoffs, 33-16, while the Demons upset the club with the XFL’s best record, the Orlando Rage (8-2), by a 26-25 score.

The teams had split their two meetings during the regular season, but before a spirited crowd of 24,153, the Xtreme dominated. After jumping out to a 3-0 first quarter lead thanks to a 37-yard field goal by the league’s top placekicker, Jose Cortez, Los Angeles took control with 18 second quarter points. Maddox hit TE Josh Wilcox with a one-yard scoring pass early in the period, and DB Reggie Durden returned a punt 71 yards for the next touchdown; in both instances, the extra point attempt (which, as mandated by league rules, couldn’t be kicked) failed. Cortez kicked field goals of 34 and 50 yards just before the half.

LA extended the lead to 31-0 in the third quarter thanks to a 19-yard TD pass from Maddox to Copeland (the run for an extra point was successful) and the fourth field goal of the day for Cortez, from 22 yards. RB Rashaan Shehee capped the scoring for the Xtreme in the fourth quarter with a 10-yard touchdown pass to WR Latario Rachal (Shehee then proceeded to run for the successful PAT). San Francisco avoided being shut out late in the game as QB Oteman Sampson ran for a 21-yard touchdown. The final score was 38-6.

The statistics reflected the Xtreme’s domination. Maddox was the game’s MVP as he completed 16 of 28 passes for 210 yards with two TDs and an interception. Darnell McDonald was the leading receiver with 7 catches for 82 yards (Jeremaine Copeland had 4 receptions for 67 yards, which included the one TD). RB Saladin McCullough (pictured) rushed for 109 yards on 20 carries.

Three San Francisco quarterbacks combined for just 11 completions in 27 attempts for 115 yards with three intercepted (two by safety Ron Carpenter); Pawlawski accounted for 8 of 20 of that total, for 74 yards with two of the interceptions. Jimmy Cunningham was by far the receiving leader for the Demons, with 6 catches for 71 yards. San Francisco was not a very successful running team during the season, and it was evident in this contest as well as the third-string QB, Sampson, was the leading rusher – even without the touchdown run at the end - with 36 yards on two carries.

The game not only decided the league championship but was the last in the XFL’s brief history. While Vince McMahon, the World Wrestling Federation promoter who founded the new football league, spoke gamely of returning for another year, it was not to be. After the first week of telecasts on NBC, viewership had dropped off badly and the network was not interested in televising another season. Football fans were disappointed in the subpar quality of play and WWF-style trappings that further damaged the league’s credibility. The XFL officially folded a few weeks after the “Million Dollar Game”.

Tommy Maddox made the most of his XFL success, returning to the NFL in the fall of 2001 with the Pittsburgh Steelers; he took over as starting quarterback in ’02 and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press. He ended up as a member of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl-winning squad in 2005, although by then he was backing up Ben Roethlisberger.

Jeremaine Copeland went to the Canadian Football League, playing for the Montreal Alouettes and Calgary Stampeders, where he was a member of Grey Cup championship teams in 2002 (Montreal) and ’08 (Calgary). Jose Cortez became a journeyman placekicker in the NFL, appearing with seven teams from 2001 to ’05.

April 19, 2010

List of the Day: Best Pass Receiving Seasons, 1960s NFL

Johnny Morris

1- Johnny Morris, 1964 Chicago Bears
93 rec., 1200 yards, 12.9 avg., 10 TD

2- Dave Parks, 1965 San Francisco 49ers
80 rec., 1344 yards, 16.8 avg., 12 TD

3- Jim Phillips, 1961 Los Angeles Rams
78 rec., 1092 yards, 14.0 avg., 5 TD

4(tied)-Raymond Berry, 1961 Baltimore Colts
75 rec., 873 yards, 11.6 avg., 0 TD

4(tied)-Mike Ditka, 1964 Chicago Bears
75 rec., 897 yards, 12.0 avg., 5 TD

6- Raymond Berry, 1960 Baltimore Colts
74 rec., 1298 yards, 17.5 avg., 10 TD

7(tied)-Bobby Joe Conrad, 1963 St. Louis Cardinals
73 rec., 967 yards, 13.2 avg., 10 TD

7(tied)-Dan Abramowicz, 1969 New Orleans Saints
73 rec., 1015 yards, 13.9 avg., 7 TD

9(tied)-Bobby Mitchell, 1962 Washington Redskins
72 rec., 1384 yards, 19.2 avg., 11 TD

9(tied)-Charley Taylor, 1966 Washington Redskins
72 rec., 1119 yards, 15.5 avg., 12 TD

Dave Parks

Jim Phillips

New York Giants: Del Shofner, 1961
68 rec., 1125 yards, 16.5 avg., 11 TD

Detroit Lions: Pat Studstill, 1966
67 rec., 1266 yards, 18.9 avg., 5 TD

Pittsburgh Steelers: Roy Jefferson, 1969
67 rec., 1079 yards, 16.1 avg., 9 TD

Philadelphia Eagles: Pete Retzlaff, 1965
66 rec., 1190 yards, 18.0 avg., 10 TD

Dallas Cowboys: Frank Clarke, 1964
65 rec., 973 yards, 15.0 avg., 5 TD

Cleveland Browns: Gary Collins, 1966
56 rec., 946 yards, 16.9 avg., 12 TD

Green Bay Packers: Boyd Dowler, 1967
54 rec., 836 yards, 15.5 avg., 4 TD

Minnesota Vikings: Paul Flatley, 1963
51 rec., 867 yards, 17.0 avg., 4 TD

Atlanta Falcons: Paul Flatley, 1969*
45 rec., 834 yards, 18.5 avg., 6 TD

* Falcons joined NFL in 1966

Mike Ditka

Bobby Joe Conrad

1- Bobby Mitchell, 1963 Washington Redskins
1436 yards, 69 rec., 20.8 avg., 7 TD

2- Bobby Mitchell, 1962 Washington Redskins
1384 yards, 72 rec., 19.2 avg., 11 TD

3- Dave Parks, 1965 San Francisco 49ers
1344 yards, 80 rec., 16.8 avg., 12 TD

4- Raymond Berry, 1960 Baltimore Colts
1298 yards, 74 rec., 17.5 avg., 10 TD

5- Buddy Dial, 1963 Pittsburgh Steelers
1295 yards, 60 rec., 21.6 avg., 9 TD

6- Pat Studstill, 1966 Detroit Lions
1266 yards, 67 rec., 18.9 avg., 5 TD

7- Ben Hawkins, 1967 Philadelphia Eagles
1265 yards, 59 rec., 21.4 avg., 10 TD

8- Bob Hayes, 1966 Dallas Cowboys
1232 yards, 64 rec., 19.3 avg., 13 TD

9- Homer Jones, 1967 New York Giants
1209 yards, 49 rec., 24.7 avg., 13 TD

10-Jackie Smith, 1967 St. Louis Cardinals
1205 yards, 56 rec., 21.5 avg., 9 TD

Raymond Berry

Bobby Mitchell

Chicago Bears: Johnny Morris, 1964
1200 yards, 93 rec., 12.9 avg., 10 TD

Los Angeles Rams: Jim Phillips, 1961
1092 yards, 78 rec., 14.0 avg., 5 TD

Cleveland Browns: Paul Warfield, 1968
1067 yards, 50 rec., 21.3 avg., 12 TD

New Orleans Saints: Dan Abramowicz, 1969*
1015 yards, 73 rec., 13.9 avg., 7 TD

Green Bay Packers: Boyd Dowler, 1963
901 yards, 53 rec., 17.0 avg. 6 TD

Minnesota Vikings: Paul Flatley, 1965
896 yards, 50 rec., 17.9 avg., 7 TD

Atlanta Falcons: Paul Flatley, 1969**
834 yards, 45 rec., 18.5 avg., 6 TD

* Saints joined NFL in 1967
** Falcons joined NFL in 1966

Bob Hayes

Homer Jones

April 17, 2010

1999: Saints Trade All Picks to Draft Ricky Williams

The first round of the 1999 NFL draft was held on April 17, and it was eventful. Early speculation had been that RB Ricky Williams, who had won the Heisman Trophy at Texas while accumulating an NCAA Division I-A-record 6279 yards, would be the hottest commodity. But doubts began to arise as draft weekend approached - there were questions about the 6’0”, 225-pound power runner’s conditioning, attitude, dreadlocked appearance, and introverted nature.

In addition, the quarterback class was considered to be a strong one and the first three teams all went for that position. The newly-reconstituted Cleveland Browns, as an expansion team for the ’99 season, had the first pick and took Tim Couch, a 6’5”, 225-pound signal caller from Kentucky. The Philadelphia Eagles, coming off of a 3-13 season and with a new offense-minded head coach in Andy Reid, chose Donovan McNabb from Syracuse. Cincinnati completed the quarterback trifecta by taking Oregon’s Akili Smith.

Choosing fourth in the first round were the Indianapolis Colts, and having just drafted Peyton Manning the year before, their interest was in a running back (they had also just traded veteran Marshall Faulk to the Rams). However, they passed Williams over for Edgerrin James of Miami, who they felt was a better fit for their offense.

The fifth choice belonged to the Washington Redskins (picked up from Carolina thanks to a trade for DE Sean Gilbert the previous year). In a stunning move, the New Orleans Saints traded their entire draft allotment of six picks in 1999 plus their first and third round choices in 2000 to the Redskins in order to draft Williams. It was a controversial deal from the moment it was announced, and spurred debate for years afterward.

The Saints had gone 6-10 in ’98 and, moreover, had the league’s worst running attack. Mike Ditka, going into the third year of his head coaching comeback in New Orleans, viewed Williams as the centerpiece of his conservative offense and had made clear well in advance of the draft that he considered the Texas back worth the price of the club’s entire draft slate. GM Bill Kuharich went ahead with the deal, despite the misgivings of some in the organization.

Ditka was ecstatic. The day after the draft, he appeared before a group of Saints fans in a Hawaiian shirt and dreadlock wig and shouted, “We are going to win the Super Bowl…We got Ricky, and he’s the final piece of the puzzle. I really believe that.” Ditka and Williams later appeared on the cover of ESPN magazine as a bride and groom, emphasizing the degree to which the coach had gambled his future on the prize running back.

Meanwhile, the Redskins turned around and dealt some of their draft bounty to the Chicago Bears in order to move up to the seventh spot in the first round and select CB Champ Bailey from Georgia. The Bears, trading down in the first round to stockpile picks, took QB Cade McNown of UCLA in the 12th slot (the original draft position of the Saints), just after another quarterback, Daunte Culpepper from Central Florida, was taken by Minnesota in the 11th spot.

Williams signed a comparatively cheap and insentive-laden contract (he made $3.8 million as a rookie, compared with James’ $14.8 million in Indianapolis) and proceeded to have a miserable season. He gained just 884 yards on 253 carries for a paltry 3.5-yard average with two touchdowns as a result of ankle, elbow, and toe injuries. He also alienated teammates and fans alike with his behavior and critical media quotes.

The Saints finished in last place in the NFC West with a 3-13 record, and owner Tom Benson fired Ditka and the rest of the coaching staff, as well as GM Kuharich.

The other teams involved in the deal didn’t fare all that well either. The Redskins ended up trading all but three of the draft picks away, and those three turned out to be LB Nate Stimson in the fourth round of the ’99 draft, LB LaVar Arrington in the first round in 2000, and DB Lloyd Harrison in the third round in 2000. Arrington had a solid career, but Stimson failed to catch on and Harrison bounced from Washington to the Chargers and Dolphins without distinguishing himself over a three-year career.

The deal with the Bears brought the opportunity to draft an outstanding performer in Bailey, but he and Arrington proved to be the only players of value from the dealmaking. The Redskins made the playoffs in 1999 with a 10-6 record, but were mediocre over the course of the ensuing five seasons. GM Charley Casserly was fired following the ’99 campaign, and Head Coach Norv Turner didn’t complete the 2000 season.

McNown was a huge disappointment for the Bears (as was the case with most of the highly-touted 1999 quarterback class), lasting just two mediocre seasons. The other players that Chicago drafted in ‘99 with the Saints picks that had come by way of Washington were WR D’Wayne Bates (third round) and LB Khari Samuel (fifth round). Bates caught a total of 15 passes over three years in Chicago before moving on to Minnesota (he caught 50 passes for 689 yards in 2002, but lasted just one more season). Samuel started one game for the Bears in 1999.

Mark Hatley, the director of player personnel, was fired in 2001 after Chicago, last place finishers in the NFC Central in 1997 and ’98, continued to land at the bottom of the standings in ’99 and 2000.

Washington traded two of the ’99 draft choices to Denver, and the Broncos used them on TE Desmond Clark (sixth round) and WR Billy Miller (seventh round). Ironically, Miller ended up being a reserve with the Saints.

Things did improve for Ricky Williams in New Orleans, where he had back-to-back thousand-yard seasons in 2000 and ’01. However, he never came close to meeting expectations and was dealt to Miami. He led the NFL with 1853 rushing yards in ’02, but drug and behavioral issues hampered his career thereafter.

The all-for-one deal of 1999 proved poisonous to the three teams most significantly involved. Almost all of the general managers and coaches who had been part of the trade and its related transactions were fired within two seasons. The Saints suffered most of all, in particular Ditka (pictured below), although he steadfastly defended the trade long afterward.

April 15, 2010

1963: Renamed Jets Hire Weeb Ewbank as Head Coach/GM

On April 15, 1963 the newly-renamed New York Jets took a major step in changing the franchise’s fortunes by hiring Weeb Ewbank as head coach and general manager. That the team had survived to play in a fourth American Football League season was an accomplishment in itself.

The club had started out in 1960 as the New York Titans, owned by the volatile Harry Wismer and playing at the decrepit Polo Grounds. Attendance was sparse (and the numbers often inflated) and money tight, but the club managed to finish at a respectable 7-7 under Head Coach Sammy Baugh’s direction in each of the first two seasons. But by 1962, the team was struggling both on the field and financially. In November, the league took over the team’s finances, Wismer declared bankruptcy, and Commissioner Joe Foss began searching for new ownership.

The new ownership turned out to be a five-man syndicate fronted by entertainment executive David A. “Sonny” Werblin. Werblin took steps to transform the club, changing the name from Titans to Jets and the colors from navy blue and gold to kelly green and white. And he brought in Weeb Ewbank to transform the team on the field.

Ewbank had already proven that he could build a winning team from modest beginnings. A former assistant to Paul Brown at Cleveland, he had taken over as head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1954, steadily building a team that had been 3-9 in ’53 into a back-to-back NFL champion by 1958 and ’59. However, injuries and aging brought the Colts back to earth over the ensuing three seasons, and Ewbank was let go after a 7-7 finish in 1962.

The refurbished Jets sought to build upon talent already on hand while adding some new arrivals in 1963. Ewbank went with Dick Wood at quarterback, who was lanky (6’5”, 200 pounds) and immobile, but also strong-armed and intelligent. Star split end Art Powell had played out his option and signed with Oakland, but that still left flanker Don Maynard, who had a typically solid season although injuries kept his numbers down (38 receptions for 780 yards with 9 TDs). Split end Bake Turner, a converted halfback who had played for Ewbank with the Colts, was a pleasant surprise in replacing Powell as he caught 71 passes for 1009 yards and six scores. FB Bill Mathis had injury problems, and was supplemented by Mark Smolinski, another former Colt. HB Dick Christy had been a productive all-purpose back, but his numbers dropped off significantly in ’63; the running game was a problem for Ewbank all season. Center Mike Hudock anchored the spotty offensive line which gained the services of rookie OT Winston Hill.

The best of the defensive linemen were ends Bob Watters and LaVerne Torczon, although talented DT Paul Rochester joined the club late in the year. Larry Grantham was considered one of the best outside linebackers in the AFL, but the remainder of linebacking corps was subpar. Clyde Washington was the best of the cornerbacks, while the safeties played well as up-and-coming veteran Dainard Paulson and rookie Bill Baird both intercepted six passes. Punter Curley Johnson was consistently good, although placekicker Dick Guesman was not.

The team went 5-8-1, only marginally better than 1962’s 5-9 tally, finishing third in the Eastern Division. They were still playing at the Polo Grounds, but a highlight of the 1964 season was the move to a fresh venue as the Jets took up residence at brand new Shea Stadium.

FB Matt Snell, a key rookie signee out of Ohio State, was a major addition in ’64, and the arrival of QB Joe Namath in 1965 was a further significant step in building toward a championship (not to mention also bringing publicity to the team). Also joining the team in those years were PK Jim Turner, LB Ralph Baker, G Dave Herman, DE Gerry Philbin, DE Verlon Biggs, C John Schmitt, LB Al Atkinson, DB Jim Hudson, and split end George Sauer - there was also MLB Wahoo McDaniel, who was more a colorful character and fan favorite than cog in an evolving championship team. HB Emerson Boozer and TE Pete Lammons arrived in 1966, DT John Elliott and G Randy Rasmussen in ’67.

It had taken Ewbank five seasons to win a championship in Baltimore, and it would take six years to do the same in New York. But in both instances, he proved his ability as a builder of football teams and delivered titles. From the humble beginnings as the Titans, the Jets became a winning and financially viable franchise over the course of the decade.

April 14, 2010

1984: Gold Overcomes 3-TD Deficit to Defeat Maulers

The Pittsburgh Maulers were one of six new teams in the United States Football League’s second season, and were experiencing plenty of difficulties as they got off to a 2-5 start. Coached by Joe Pendry, the offense was directed by former Cowboys backup QB Glenn Carano and featured rookie Heisman Trophy-winning RB Mike Rozier. However, the defense was mediocre, Rozier got off to a slow start, and Carano struggled (at least, prior to a 388-yard passing performance the week before in a losing effort at New Orleans).

Pittsburgh’s opponent at Three Rivers Stadium on April 14, 1984 was the Denver Gold. Under Head Coach Craig Morton, the Gold had gotten off to a 6-1 start and sat atop the Pacific Division. It hardly seemed likely that the Maulers would mount a strong challenge.

However, at halftime the score was 21-0 in favor of Pittsburgh. Carano had thrown touchdown passes of 21 and 24 yards to WR Greg Anderson and, in between, connected for a 65-yard TD to WR Jackie Flowers.

Denver finally got on the board in the third quarter as QB Craig Penrose threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to WR Kevin Williams. Shortly thereafter, Penrose went down with torn knee ligaments, but reserve QB Bob Gagliano stepped in and narrowed the margin to 21-13 with a 25-yard TD throw to WR Leonard Harris (the extra point attempt failed).

In the fourth quarter, Gagliano connected with Harris for another score, this one from five yards out, and the quarterback ran for a successful two-point conversion to tie the contest. The Gold pulled ahead thanks to an 18-yard touchdown run by Williams on an end-around, and Brian Speelman’s 20-yard field goal with under two minutes to play sealed the 31-21 Denver victory.

The game had been all Pittsburgh in the first half, all Denver in the second. The Maulers outrushed the Gold, 176 yards to 97, and controlled the ball for almost 34 minutes to Denver’s 26. However, Carano (pictured at left) threw three interceptions and was sacked six times (three times apiece by defensive ends Dave Stalls and Bruce Thornton), as opposed to Denver suffering one sack and neither quarterback having a pass picked off. Pittsburgh also committed 12 penalties, adding up to 100 yards, to Denver’s four for 26 yards.

A bright spot for the Maulers was the performance of Rozier, who had his first pro hundred-yard game with 137 yards on 24 carries. Carano’s numbers reflected his inconsistency as he threw three touchdowns, three interceptions, and completed just 14 of 34 passes. Greg Anderson caught 6 passes (for 96 yards) while Jackie Flowers led the team in receiving yards with 125 on three catches.

For Denver, Bob Gagliano’s solid relief performance was summed up by his completing 8 of 9 passes for 90 yards and the two TDs. Prior to that, Craig Penrose was successful on 7 of 16 passes for 106 yards and a score. Leonard Harris was the top receiver with 5 catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns. RB Harry Sydney led the runners with 60 yards on 15 carries.

The win marked the high point of the season for the Gold – they lost their next five contests and won only two more games the rest of the way to finish at 9-9 and in third place in the Pacific Division. Pittsburgh never got on track, ending up at the bottom of the Atlantic Division (along with the Washington Federals) with a 3-15 record. The Maulers folded following the season while the Gold changed ownership and Morton was replaced as coach by Darrell “Mouse” Davis, who had popularized the “run-and-shoot” offense.

April 12, 2010

List of the Day: Best Passing Yardage Seasons, 1960s NFL

Sonny Jurgensen

TOP 10
1- Sonny Jurgensen, 1967 Washington Redskins
3747 yards, 288-508, 56.7 %, 31 TD, 16 INT

2- Sonny Jurgensen, 1961 Philadelphia Eagles
3723 yards, 235-416, 56.5 %, 32 TD, 24 INT

3- Johnny Unitas, 1963 Baltimore Colts
3481 yards, 237-410, 57.8 %, 20 TD, 12 INT

4- Johnny Unitas, 1967 Baltimore Colts
3428 yards, 255-436, 58.5 %, 20 TD, 16 INT

5- Norm Snead, 1967 Philadelphia Eagles
3399 yards, 240-434, 55.3 %, 29 TD, 24 INT

6- Charley Johnson, 1963 St. Louis Cardinals
3280 yards, 222-423, 52.5 %, 28 TD, 21 INT

7- Sonny Jurgensen, 1962 Philadelphia Eagles
3261 yards, 196-366, 53.6 %, 22 TD, 26 INT

8- Y.A. Tittle, 1962 New York Giants
3224 yards, 200-375, 53.3 %, 33 TD, 20 INT

9- Sonny Jurgensen, 1966 Washington Redskins
3209 yards, 254-436, 58.3 %, 28 TD, 19 INT

10-Bill Wade, 1962 Chicago Bears
3172 yards, 225-412, 54.6 %, 18 TD, 24 INT

Johnny Unitas

Norm Snead

Charley Johnson

Y.A. Tittle

San Francisco 49ers: John Brodie, 1965
3112 yards, 242-391, 61.9 %, 30 TD, 16 INT

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ed Brown, 1963
2982 yards, 168-362, 46.4 %, 21 TD, 20 INT

Cleveland Browns: Frank Ryan, 1966
2974 yards, 200-382, 52.4 %, 29 TD, 14 INT

Dallas Cowboys: Don Meredith, 1966
2805 yards, 177-344, 51.5 %, 24 TD, 12 INT

Los Angeles Rams: Roman Gabriel, 1967
2779 yards, 196-371, 52.8 %, 25 TD, 13 INT

Detroit Lions: Earl Morrall, 1963
2621 yards, 174-328, 53.0 %, 24 TD, 14 INT

Minnesota Vikings: Fran Tarkenton, 1965
2609 yards, 171-329, 52.0 %, 19 TD, 11 INT

New Orleans Saints: Billy Kilmer, 1969*
2532 yards, 193-360, 53.6 %, 20 TD, 17 INT

Green Bay Packers: Bart Starr, 1962
2438 yards, 178-285, 62.5 %, 12 TD, 9 INT

Atlanta Falcons: Randy Johnson, 1966**
1795 yards, 129-295, 43.7 %, 12 TD, 21 INT

* Saints joined NFL in 1967
** Falcons joined NFL in 1966

Bill Wade

John Brodie

Ed Brown

Frank Ryan

April 11, 2010

1936: Second AFL Awards Eight Franchises

On April 11, 1936 the second pro football organization to be called the American Football League (the first existed for one season in 1926) awarded eight franchises for the inaugural ’36 season.

The prime mover behind the new league was Harry March (pictured below left), an experienced executive both as personnel director for the New York Giants and in the league office of the NFL. Plans had been announced in November of 1935 for the formation of the AFL, which March indicated would be a “players’ league” and would seek to draw talent away from the NFL.

The eight franchises announced on April 11 were in Boston, Cleveland, Jersey City, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, and Syracuse. This lineup of clubs was hardly set, however, as three of the franchises (Jersey City, Philadelphia, and Providence) dropped out in August, well before the season commenced. Rochester was granted a franchise, although by early September that team was also gone and Brooklyn entered the circuit.

The league played its first regular season game on September 27 before 6500 fans at New York’s Triborough Stadium, with the New York Yankees defeating the Syracuse Braves, 13-6.

The Yankees were the most successful at raiding the NFL – most notably, they signed back/kicker Ken Strong away from the Giants. They were coached by ex-Giant Jack McBride (pictured at top right) and also had end Les Borden and back Stu Clancy (both also former Giants). Syracuse had star end Red Badgro, who was also a co-coach, but he stayed for just three games and jumped back to the NFL. The Pittsburgh Americans snagged two members of the NFL’s Pirates, end Ben Smith and guard Dave Ribble. Cleveland’s entry, the Rams, signed fullback Damon “Buzz” Wetzel as well as Ohio State’s All-American center, Gomer Jones (pictured below), and an end who would later become far more prominent as a pro head coach, Sid Gillman.

It was the team that accomplished the least in pursuing players from the NFL that ended up having the most success, the Boston Shamrocks. Coached by George Kennedy and splitting their games between Fenway Park and Braves Field, the Shamrocks won the AFL title with an 8-3 record.

The Cleveland Rams went 5-2-2 with the league’s best defense to finish second and draw well at Municipal Stadium. The Yankees, playing at Yankee Stadium (where they hosted the first night football game in that storied venue’s history) as well as Triborough Stadium, were next at 5-3-2. Pittsburgh was a competitive 3-2-1 on the field but drew poorly at Forbes Field, averaging 2500 per home game.

The remaining teams were both uncompetitive and unstable. After losing five straight contests, the Syracuse Braves moved to Rochester, played two more games, and folded with a final record of 1-6. The Brooklyn Tigers, who were in trouble from the start because of the lack of a home stadium, took advantage of the demise of the Braves to take up residence in Rochester; it didn’t help, as the club played just one home game at Red Wing Stadium and failed to win at all, completing the season with a 0-6-1 tally.

Following the season, the Rams were accepted into the NFL for 1937 (two relocations later, they are still there). Another Ohio city, Cincinnati, joined the league in ’37 as well as an independent team that failed to gain entry into the NFL, the Los Angeles Bulldogs. The Bulldogs, considered the first major league sports team to be based on the West Coast, dominated the league in its second (and final) season.

The second AFL lasted just two unstable seasons, but, in the Rams, did field one franchise that survives to this day. They also provided a team name that was revived later, the Cincinnati Bengals – beyond that, the club bears no relation to the 1968 expansion franchise in the fourth AFL that is part of today’s NFL. However, this first Bengals team joined the minor league American Professional Football Association after the league’s demise and became a member of the third AFL in 1940.

April 9, 2010

1983: John Reaves Sets USFL Passing Records as Bandits Defeat Gold in Overtime

33-year-old QB John Reaves was making the most of his new opportunity with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League. An outstanding college passer at Florida, he had been the first draft choice of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1972. He had started seven games for a very bad Eagles team in his rookie season, but then sat on the bench for two years after veteran Roman Gabriel was obtained from the Rams. Traded to Cincinnati, Reaves backed up Ken Anderson for four years. But after appearing in five games with the Houston Oilers in 1981, it appeared that his career was over. He had become better known for his off-field problems than any on-field accomplishments.

In 1983, a clean and sober Reaves became starting quarterback for the USFL franchise in Tampa Bay, operating Head Coach Steve Spurrier’s air-oriented offense. He led the team to wins in the first four games, but then suffered a disastrous performance against the Chicago Blitz in which he was intercepted four times and pulled in the third quarter.

In the following contest, on April 9, 1983 at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Reaves filled the air with passes as he set single-game league records for passes attempted (63) and completed (38). The Bandits defeated the Denver Gold, 22-16, but it wasn’t easy.

Denver was up 13-3 at halftime thanks to a 56-yard pass play from QB Ken Johnson to RB Harry Sydney and two Brian Speelman field goals. The Bandits had managed only a 36-yard first quarter field goal by Zenon Andrusyshyn.

Reaves led Tampa Bay on a long scoring drive in the third quarter that culminated in a six-yard TD pass to WR Danny Buggs; Denver blocked the ensuing extra point attempt. A one-yard fourth quarter touchdown run by RB Sam Platt put the Bandits ahead by a 16-13 margin, but the Gold fought back as Speelman tied the game with a 33-yard field goal with 45 seconds remaining in regulation.

Reaves directed a 73-yard scoring drive to win the game in overtime, including a key 28-yard pass to WR Eric Truvillion that set up an 11-yard touchdown run by RB Greg Boone.

Reaves’ 38-of-63 performance yielded 357 yards; he threw two interceptions in addition to his one TD pass. Sam Platt caught the most passes for the Bandits with 12 receptions out of the backfield for 87 yards while Danny Buggs led the team with 97 yards on 8 catches. Boone was Tampa Bay’s top rusher with 41 yards on seven carries; Platt contributed another 36 yards on 16 attempts.

For Denver, Harry Sydney was the top rusher with 68 yards on 17 carries. Ken Johnson completed 13 of 23 passes for 157 yards with the lone touchdown and no interceptions. TE Bob Niziolek caught 5 passes, for 27 yards, while Sydney was the receiving yardage leader with 56 thanks to his touchdown reception.

Tampa Bay’s strong start didn’t result in continued success over the course of the season; the Bandits ended up with an 11-7 record and finished in third place in the strong Central Division and out of the postseason. Denver was 7-11 and ended up third in the far weaker Pacific Division.

Reaves suffered a broken right wrist the week after the Denver game and didn’t return until the next-to-last contest of the season (three quarterbacks started in his absence, most notably Jimmy Jordan, a former Florida State star). Thus, his overall numbers were held to 139 completions in 259 attempts (53.7 %) for 1726 yards with 9 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. That he was playing football at all, and in general quite effectively, was the bigger story. He would go on to have his greatest professional season in 1984.

April 7, 2010

1985: Herschel Walker Runs for USFL-Record 233 Yards vs. Houston

Since signing with the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals as an underclassman in 1983 after a legendary college football career at Georgia, RB Herschel Walker had gained a lot of yards and received his share of plaudits, but had taken criticism along the way as well. The problem was one of immense expectations for a player who had been a dominating force at both the high school and college levels.

While Walker had led the league with 1812 yards in ’83, the Generals had compiled a weak 6-12 record. And while the club went 14-4 and made it to the postseason in 1984, Walker ranked “only” third among the USFL’s rushers with 1339 yards. Moreover, he was criticized for running tentatively and being too quick to head out of bounds rather than challenging defending players for extra yards; in reality, a sore shoulder was hampering him and thus altering his style.

In 1985, the Generals added another Heisman Trophy winner, QB Doug Flutie, who took some of the media attention off of Walker. During the preceding offseason, the star running back had surgery to correct the shoulder problems. He started off slowly, gaining just six yards in the season opening game and averaging 83.3 yards over the first six contests.

But on April 7, 1985 against the Houston Gamblers at Giants Stadium, Walker broke loose for 233 yards, breaking the existing league single-game record of 208. Included were two touchdown runs, one an 88-yard sprint that also was a league high and another with a one-yard plunge on fourth down. Flutie contributed a seven-yard touchdown run as the Generals set a team rushing record of 343 yards and defeated the Gamblers, 31-25.

Houston, having won its first five games, dropped to 5-2 on the way to a 10-8 final record and third place in the Western Conference; the Gamblers lost to Birmingham in the quarterfinal playoff round. New Jersey improved to 4-3 and went on to finish in second place in the Eastern Conference at 11-7, also losing in the quarterfinal round to the eventual champions, the Baltimore Stars.

The record-setting performance spurred Herschel Walker to a record-setting season. Over the course of the 18 games, he accumulated 2411 yards on 438 carries for a 5.5-yard average with 21 touchdowns. He also led the club in pass receiving with 37 catches for 467 yards and a TD. His 22 total touchdowns made him the USFL’s scoring leader with 132 points and he was named MVP by both the league and The Sporting News.

At 6’1” and 222 pounds, Walker ran with both power and speed. While he was criticized for being strictly a straight-ahead runner without great instincts, he still gained 5562 rushing yards in three USFL seasons, and went on to add another 8225 yards in twelve years in the NFL (and that doesn’t count another 11,496 yards when adding pass receptions and kickoff returns). As Generals president Jason Seltzer once said, “No matter what Herschel does, it’s never enough.” But in the game against Houston, and over the course of his career, he did plenty.

April 5, 2010

List of the Day: Best Rushing Seasons, 1960s NFL

Jim Brown

TOP 10
1- Jim Brown, 1963 Cleveland Browns
1863 yards, 291 att., 6.4 avg., 12 TD

2- Jim Brown, 1965 Cleveland Browns
1544 yards, 289 att., 5.3 avg., 17 TD

3- Jim Taylor, 1962 Green Bay Packers
1474 yards, 272 att., 5.4 avg., 19 TD

4- Jim Brown, 1964 Cleveland Browns
1446 yards, 280 att., 5.2 avg., 7 TD

5- Jim Brown, 1961 Cleveland Browns
1408 yards, 305 att., 4.6 avg., 8 TD

6- Jim Taylor, 1961 Green Bay Packers
1307 yards, 243 att., 5.4 avg., 15 TD

7- Jim Brown, 1960 Cleveland Browns
1257 yards, 215 att., 5.8 avg., 9 TD

8- Leroy Kelly, 1968 Cleveland Browns
1239 yards, 248 att., 5.0 avg., 16 TD

9- Gale Sayers, 1966 Chicago Bears
1231 yards, 229 att., 5.4 avg., 8 TD

10-Leroy Kelly, 1967 Cleveland Browns
1205 yards, 235 att., 5.1 avg., 11 TD

Jim Taylor

Leroy Kelly

Gale Sayers

Pittsburgh Steelers: John Henry Johnson, 1962
1141 yards, 251 att., 4.5 avg., 7 TD

Los Angeles Rams: Dick Bass, 1966
1090 yards, 248 att., 4.4 avg., 8 TD

St. Louis Cardinals: John David Crow, 1960
1071 yards, 183 att., 5.9 avg., 6 TD

Minnesota Vikings: Dave Osborn, 1967
972 yards, 215 att., 4.5 avg., 2 TD

San Francisco 49ers: Ken Willard, 1968
967 yards, 227 att., 4.3 avg., 7 TD

Philadelphia Eagles: Tom Woodeshick, 1968
947 yards, 217 att., 4.4 avg., 3 TD

Dallas Cowboys: Don Perkins, 1962
945 yards, 222 att., 4.3 avg., 7 TD

New York Giants: Alex Webster, 1961
928 yards, 196 att., 4.7 avg., 2 TD

Baltimore Colts: Tom Matte, 1969
909 yards, 235 att., 3.9 avg., 11 TD

Washington Redskins: Larry Brown, 1969
888 yards, 202 att., 4.4 avg., 4 TD

Detroit Lions: Nick Pietrosante, 1960
872 yards, 161 att., 5.4 avg., 8 TD

New Orleans Saints: Andy Livingston, 1969*
761 yards, 181 att., 4.2 avg., 5 TD

Atlanta Falcons: Junior Coffey, 1966 & 1967**
722 yards, 199 att., 3.6 avg., 4 TD (1966)
722 yards, 180 att., 4.0 avg., 4 TD (1967)

*Saints joined NFL in 1967
**Falcons joined NFL in 1966

John Henry Johnson

Dick Bass

Don Perkins

Alex Webster