April 7, 2012

1976: Larry Csonka Signs with Giants

On April 7, 1976 and following some five hours of intense negotiations, the New York Giants announced that they had signed star FB Larry Csonka, formerly of the Miami Dolphins and World Football League’s Memphis Southmen, who was now available due to the demise of that short-lived entity.

The 29-year-old Csonka had originally planned to continue the search and sit down with other teams, including the Dolphins, Colts, and Browns, after meeting with the Giants. In all, 15 teams were known to have expressed interest in signing Csonka now that he was a free agent, with six serious offers, according to his agent.

The Dolphins had hoped that the 6’5”, 235-pound fullback would return to Miami once the WFL folded. Csonka had originally said he would let the Dolphins match any offer he received, but was angered by comments made by owner Joe Robbie to the effect that Csonka’s asking price was unrealistic. In the end, the Giants gave him the multiyear deal he was seeking, with three years for around $2 million.

The Syracuse All-American had gotten off to a slow start as a pro in his first two years with the struggling Dolphins. Taken in the first round of the 1968 NFL/AFL draft, he gained a total of 1106 yards for the 8-18-2 recent expansion team and had problems with injuries as well as adjustment to the pro game. Things changed dramatically for both Csonka and the Dolphins upon the arrival of Don Shula as head coach in 1970. The team made it to the postseason with a 10-4 record and the running game, led by Csonka and his 874 yards with a 4.5 average gain, was a big part of the turnaround.

Miami won three straight AFC titles from 1971-73 and back-to-back Super Bowls in the latter two years, including an undefeated record in 1972. A straight-ahead runner with battering-ram effectiveness between the tackles, Csonka was a consensus first-team All-Pro in 1971 and ’73 and was selected to five consecutive Pro Bowls from ’70 through ’74. In all, he rushed for 5900 yards on 1286 carries (4.6 avg.) and 41 touchdowns in the regular season and added another 871 yards on 215 attempts (4.1 avg.), including four hundred-yard games and recognition as MVP of Super Bowl VIII, in the postseason.

However, going into the 1974 season, in which the Dolphins again reached the postseason before losing a close-fought game to Oakland in the Divisional round, it was already known that Csonka and two of his teammates were lame ducks in Miami. In a sensational development Csonka, HB Jim Kiick, and WR Paul Warfield signed with the Toronto Northmen of the WFL. The Northmen became the Memphis Southmen by the time the franchise took the field in ‘74, and, after playing out their Miami contracts, it was there that the celebrated trio played in 1975. The league went under after 11 weeks and Csonka, limited to seven games by injury, rushed for 421 yards on 99 carries (4.3 avg.) and one TD.

The head coach of the Giants, Bill Arnsparger, had been Miami’s defensive coordinator when Csonka was with the club. While New York had suffered through three straight losing seasons and had not reached the postseason since 1963, Csonka indicated that he didn’t consider the Giants to be in a rebuilding mode. “I’m too old to be starting from scratch. I don’t think I could endure rebuilding years now. I think the New York Giants are pretty well rebuilt.”

The confident words proved to be inaccurate. While the Giants had a capable quarterback in Craig Morton, the receiving corps was nothing special, the running game no better than fair, and the offensive line was mediocre. The defense was strong at linebacker but nowhere else. Morton had completed 51.2 % of his passes for 2359 yards and 11 TDs in ‘75, but he also threw 16 interceptions and was sacked on 47 occasions. The top rushers were FB Joe Dawkins (129 carries, 438 yards, 3.4 avg.), HB Doug Kotar (122 carries, 378 yards, 3.1 avg.), and HB Ron Johnson, once a star but now on the downside (116 carries, 351 yards, 3.0 avg. plus 34 catches for 280 yards). Dawkins and Johnson were both gone before the ‘76 season.

The addition of a solid fullback addressed one of the team’s needs, but there were too many other holes to fill. A change of venue, with the move to a newly-constructed stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, didn’t help. The Giants sank to 3-11 in 1976, losing their first nine games before finally registering a win. Csonka played in 11 games before being knocked out for the remainder of the year with a knee injury and gained just 569 yards on 160 carries (3.6 avg.) and four touchdowns – Kotar ended up leading the club with 731 yards on the ground.

Bill Arnsparger was dismissed as head coach halfway through the season and his successor was John McVay, who coincidentally had been Csonka’s coach in Memphis of the WFL. Morton was also gone, dealt to Denver where he revived his career. While two mediocre veterans, Steve Ramsey and Dennis Shaw, were brought in to compete for the vacant quarterback position, a rookie, Jerry Golsteyn, won the job but was soon replaced by another NFL newcomer by way of Canada, Joe Pisarcik. Csonka had another rough year on an offensively-challenged club, this time ranking third on the Giants with 464 yards on 134 attempts (3.5 avg.) and one TD.

The nadir for Csonka and the team was reached in 1978. While the record actually improved to 6-10 and several of the defeats were by close margins, a loss to Philadelphia at home came to epitomize the team’s futility and set the stage for a huge shakeup of the organization. The key play, which became a part of pro football folklore and was celebrated as “the Miracle of the Meadowlands” by Eagles fans and called simply “The Fumble” by morose Giants backers, came in the final seconds. With possession of the ball and time running out, Pisarcik was instructed to run a play rather than take a knee - an attempted handoff to Csonka resulted in a fumble, and the Eagles scored on the recovery to win the game in stunning fashion.

The Giants won only one more contest the rest of the way, negating what had been a promising 3-1 start. Along with the coaching staff and GM Andy Robustelli, Csonka was gone after the ’78 season. It was his least productive pro year as he rushed for only 311 yards on 91 carries for an average gain of just 3.4 yards and six touchdowns.

In three seasons with New York, Csonka ran the ball 385 times for 1344 yards (3.5 avg.) and 11 TDs. Never noted as a pass receiver, he added 15 catches for 132 yards and no scores. It was far less than had been anticipated when the big fullback joined the team.

Csonka returned to Miami for one last year in 1979, and had a solid performance with 837 yards on 220 carries for a 3.8-yard average and 12 touchdowns. It capped a career in which he gained 8081 yards in the NFL and he ultimately was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987. But it was the great performances with winning Miami teams that sealed his reputation – the brief WFL sojourn and three seasons with the Giants were mere footnotes.