May 19, 2011

1971: Alworth Moves from Chargers to Cowboys in Three-Team Trade

On May 19, 1971 a major three-team NFL trade was announced, involving the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, and San Diego Chargers – and centering around two wide receivers named Lance. The Rams sent TE Billy Truax and WR Wendell Tucker to Dallas for WR Lance Rentzel. The Cowboys then dealt DT Ron East, TE Pettis Norman, and OT Tony Liscio to San Diego for WR Lance Alworth.

The future Hall of Famer Alworth (pictured above) was the biggest name involved. At the time he ranked seventh in all-time pro pass receptions (most having come in the AFL) with 493 for 9584 yards and 81 TDs. Coming into the league in 1962 (he was originally drafted by the Raiders but San Diego traded for his draft rights), he was a consensus All-AFL first team selection for six straight seasons (1963-68) and was selected for seven consecutive AFL All-Star Games. He led the league in pass receptions three times and had seven straight thousand-yard receiving totals, also leading the AFL in that category on three occasions. In the competition between the younger league and the NFL prior to the merger of the two in 1970, the player known as Bambi for his grace as well as speed was considered one of the elite receivers in all of pro football, regardless of league.

In ’70, Alworth caught just 35 passes for 608 yards and, at age 30 (he turned 31 prior to the 1971 season), appeared to be on the downside of his great career. He also had off-field financial issues and had sued the Chargers for breach of contract and the NFL for antitrust, briefly retiring during the summer of 1970. Alworth and the Chargers settled their issues and the star wide receiver had signed a contract extension.

The Cowboys, NFC Champions in 1970, were looking to stockpile wide receivers in the offseason (they had already traded for WR Gloster Richardson from Kansas City). They were in contract negotiations with split end Bob Hayes, their speedy deep threat who had played out his option and was actively shopping himself around the NFL, and had decided to rid themselves of Rentzel, who was talented but had become a public relations problem for the team.

The 28-year-old Rentzel had been with the Cowboys for four years and starred at flanker, catching 183 passes for 3521 yards (19.2 avg.) and 31 touchdowns. He accumulated over 900 yards in each of his first three seasons with Dallas, with a high of 1009 in 1968, and led the NFL in yards per reception (22.3) and TD catches (12) in ’69. However, he had off-field issues of a different nature, having pled guilty to indecently exposing himself to a young girl during the 1970 season. Rentzel didn’t play in the last five games of the regular season as well as the ensuing Super Bowl drive in the playoffs.

Billy Truax, also 28, had been a starter for the Rams for the past four seasons but underwent knee and elbow surgery in the offseason. An able receiver as well as blocker, he was expected to compete with veteran TE Mike Ditka for the starting job. Pettis Norman, who had been with the Cowboys since 1962, alternated with Ditka and had been used mostly as a blocker in ’70.

Wendell Tucker, 27 years old, had been with the Rams for three years and caught 38 passes for 629 yards (16.6 avg.) and seven TDs in ’69, but dropped off to just 12 receptions in 1970.

Of the players Dallas gave up to the Chargers for Alworth, in addition to Norman, Tony Liscio was the most accomplished, having spent seven years with the Cowboys and occasionally starting at offensive tackle. Ron East had been strictly a backup on the defensive line since joining the club in 1967.

“Alworth's record speaks for itself,” said.Dallas Coach Tom Landry. “We were very reluctant to trade men the caliber of Norman, Liscio and East, but when the chance for Alworth came we couldn't pass it up.”

Referring to the trade, Chargers Head Coach Sid Gillman said, “It was made for only one reason - to help the Chargers win. We obtained three excellent players in positions in which we need help. Our club will be stronger for the trade.”

Alworth, paired with Hayes (who ultimately re-signed with the Cowboys) as one of the starting wide receivers, caught 34 passes for 487 yards in 1971, for a 14.3-yard average and two TDs (Hayes, by comparison, had 35 receptions for 840 yards, a 24.0 average gain, and eight scores). The Cowboys reached the top, beating Miami in the Super Bowl with Alworth scoring the game’s first touchdown. It was something of a last hurrah – he caught just 15 passes for 195 yards in ’72 and retired. In 1978, he became the first AFL star to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Truax took over the role vacated by Pettis Norman and played well in alternation with Ditka in ‘71, although the knee injury continued to cause him problems. He appeared in just eight games over the course of the 1972 and ’73 seasons, his last two in the NFL, catching four passes.

Wendell Tucker failed to make the Cowboys and was waived in the preseason. While the Broncos picked him up, he never again appeared in a regular season NFL contest.

As for Lance Rentzel, he played well for the 8-5-1 Rams in ‘71, providing a much-needed deep threat and taking pressure off of the other veteran wide receiver, Jack Snow. Rentzel led the team with 38 pass receptions for 534 yards (Snow gained 666 yards on his 37 catches) and scored five TDs. The team did less well in 1972, and the same could be said for Rentzel, who contributed 27 catches for 365 yards. He again ran into off-field problems, this time a marijuana possession charge that caused him to be suspended for the ’73 season. The talented but troubled receiver played one last year for the Rams in 1974 before his NFL career came to an end.

In San Diego, Pettis Norman caught a career-high 27 passes in 1971, the first of three seasons as the starting tight end to finish off his career. Ron East, undersized at 236 pounds but a tough competitor, lasted three years with the Chargers before jumping to The Hawaiians of the World Football League in 1974. When he returned to the NFL in ’75, it was with the Cleveland Browns.

Tony Liscio’s fate was perhaps the most interesting (Liscio pictured #72 above). Suffering from a back injury, he was traded by San Diego to Miami in a late ’71 preseason deal for center Carl Mauck, but chose to retire instead of report to the Dolphins. The Chargers retained his rights and eventually waived him, at which point he was picked up once again by the Cowboys. With tackles Ralph Neely and Don Talbert injured, they needed an experienced lineman and Liscio, who had moved back to the Dallas area, was inserted immediately into the starting lineup. He went on to finish out the season in good form and ended his pro career with a Super Bowl victory (and as a teammate of the player he had been traded for, Alworth).