April 10, 2012

1964: Giants Trade Sam Huff to Redskins

The New York Giants had largely dominated the NFL Eastern Conference from 1956 through ’63, coming in first in six of those eight seasons and winning one championship. The string had begun under Head Coach Jim Lee Howell, who retired following the 1960 season, and continued under his successor, Allie Sherman. While the offense, guided by QB Y.A. Tittle, had been highly productive from 1961 to ’63, it was the strong and savvy defensive unit that had consistently made the Giants a contender.

Thus, it was shocking on April 10, 1964 when New York traded one of the key players on the defense, MLB Sam Huff, along with rookie defensive lineman George Seals to the lowly Washington Redskins for DE Andy Stynchula, HB Dick James, and a fifth round draft choice for 1965. Coming after the retirement of DE Andy Robustelli and trade of DT Dick Modzelewski to Cleveland, the deal was a shock to fans and players alike.

“It’s kind of like getting hit with a bomb,” said Huff in reaction. “It’s so unexpected I haven’t gotten over the shock.”

As Huff pointed out at the time of the trade, the Giants defense had been not only effective but a close-knit unit as well. The 6’1”, 230-pound West Virginia native had been one of the most visible and popular members of that platoon since joining the club as a third-round draft pick in 1956. With deceptive speed and great strength, he had been selected to four straight Pro Bowls from 1958 to ’61, was a consensus first-team All-Pro on two occasions, and received some first-team All-Pro recognition in two others. Moreover, he had appeared on the cover of TIME magazine and gained additional notoriety from a television documentary that aired in 1960 called “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” While there were complaints that Huff received more publicity than he was due and was not the equal of contemporary middle linebackers such as Detroit’s Joe Schmidt or Green Bay’s Ray Nitschke, he was a fan favorite, prone to making big plays, durable, and unquestionably talented – his one-on-one battles with the two greatest fullbacks of the era, Cleveland’s Jim Brown and Jim Taylor of the Packers, were particularly noteworthy.

However, Huff was 29 at the time of the trade and the defense was already developing holes during the offseason. Robustelli’s apparent retirement and the Modzelewski trade created concerns regarding the line, making Andy Stynchula attractive. A star at Penn State, the 6’3” and 250-pound Stynchula had played at defensive end in four years with the Redskins but was versatile enough to play tackle.

In addition, the running backs were aging and injuries had plagued the group in 1963. The 30-year-old Dick James (pictured at right) was an all-purpose halfback who had been with the Redskins for eight seasons and returned kicks as well as appeared in the backfield. He had never gained more than 384 yards rushing in a season – and never carried the ball more than 105 times – but was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1961. It was hoped he could provide needed depth.

“We felt we had to strengthen both our defensive line and our offensive backfield, and the price came high,” explained Sherman.

For Washington, it was the second major deal in ten days, following the exchange of QB Norm Snead for QB Sonny Jurgensen of Philadelphia. Head Coach/GM Bill McPeak was looking to obtain proven veterans in the hope of winning immediately – he was facing a “win-or-else” edict. In three seasons under his guidance, the Redskins had gone 9-30-3.

Linebacker had been a problem area for the Redskins, and together with Jimmy Carr, a defensive back that they intended to convert to outside linebacker who was obtained in the trade with the Eagles, Huff offered a major upgrade. Rod Breedlove, the starting RLB in ’63, was to compete with Bob Pellegrini and Allen Miller for the LLB starting spot (veteran John Reger was picked up prior to the season and filled the position capably). The 275-pound George Seals had been chosen by the Giants in the fourth round of the ’64 draft out of Missouri and was considered to be a defensive line prospect, replacing the departed Stynchula.

Hopes that Allie Sherman’s deal-making would put the Giants over the top in 1964 were shattered as the team collapsed instead. Andy Robustelli came out of retirement for one more year as a player-coach, but like many of his aging teammates on both sides of the ball, was no longer a stellar performer. Lou Slaby, in his first season after spending’63 on the taxi squad, filled in surprisingly well at middle linebacker, but was not of Huff’s caliber (and did not prove long-lasting). Stynchula started but, likewise, did not remind anyone of Modzelewski. Dick James was the primary punt returner, averaging 7.3 yards on his 21 returns, and ran back 23 kickoffs for a 22.4-yard average, but gained just 189 yards on 55 carries (3.4 avg.) and caught 12 passes for 101 more.

New York fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 2-10-2 record and Sherman’s trades were heavily criticized, especially since Modzelewski helped to solidify the defensive line for the Browns, who went on to win the ’64 NFL Championship, and Huff was selected to the Pro Bowl.

Indeed, Huff provided both the outstanding play and leadership that had been anticipated. He intercepted passes in each of the first three games and the defense overall improved from last (14th) in the NFL in 1963 to seventh. They also defeated the Giants for the first time in seven seasons. While Washington was still a losing team, the record was an improved 6-8 (Bill McPeak was able to hold on for another year).

The Giants were unable to fully right the ship during the remainder of Sherman’s coaching reign, which ended following the 1968 season. The club had three 7-7 records during that time, but the trades of the 1963-64 offseason haunted him to the end. Andy Stynchula handled some of the placekicking as well as starting on the defensive line in 1965, his last in New York. He was dealt to the Colts prior to the 1966 season. Dick James didn’t make it that far as he was rendered expendable by a rising group of young running backs (called the “Baby Bulls” and led by HB Steve Thurlow and FB Ernie Wheelwright) and finished up his career in Minnesota in ’65.

Sam Huff played another three years for the Redskins, retired following the 1967 season, and then was coaxed back into action for one last year in 1969 when Vince Lombardi arrived as head coach and general manager. He played well with Washington, perhaps partly motivated by the bitterness that he maintained toward the Giants organization for trading him – reportedly, he called the field goal unit onto the field to add a final three-point nail in New York’s coffin near the end of a wild 72-41 Washington victory in 1966.

Huff was eventually enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, gaining admission in 1982. While arguments persisted as to how much the publicity he received in New York enhanced his reputation, there could be no question that his departure was keenly felt by the Giants defense and his play in Washington remained at a high level.

As footnotes, George Seals was moved to offensive tackle in 1964 and then was traded to Chicago just before the ’65 season, where he played for seven years and appeared both at guard on offense and tackle on defense. The 1965 fifth round draft choice that the Giants obtained along with Stynchula and James was used to take Frank Lambert, an end/punter out of Mississippi who spent two years as a punter for the Steelers.