February 27, 2013

1964: Eagles Hire Joe Kuharich as Head Coach



After having won the 1960 NFL Championship and contending strongly in ’61, the Philadelphia Eagles endured last-place finishes in 1962 and ’63. In January of 1964, 37-year-old construction executive Jerry Wolman’s purchase of the franchise was approved by the league and he immediately fired Head Coach Nick Skorich. Saying that he would “hire the best professional coach available”, Wolman conducted an extensive coaching search over the next several weeks. Among those rumored as possibilities for the job were ex-Eagles QB Norm Van Brocklin, who was the head coach in Minnesota; Paul Brown, who had been inactive since being fired by the Browns following the ’62 season; Otto Graham, former star quarterback in Cleveland who was coaching collegiately at the Coast Guard Academy; Weeb Ewbank, ex- Colts head coach now in the AFL with the New York Jets; and a former Eagles coach, Jim Trimble, who was currently coaching in Canada. 

On February 27, 1964 Wolman introduced Joe Kuharich as the new head coach of the Eagles (Kuharich shown at left in picture at top, with Wolman to his right). The hiring raised questions from the start. The 46-year-old Kuharich had most recently been the NFL’s supervisor of officials in 1963, a year after he had left the head coaching job at Notre Dame, where he had compiled a losing record of 17-23 in four seasons.

Kuharich, a guard, had played collegiately at Notre Dame and professionally with the Chicago Cardinals before entering the coaching ranks. He was most successful with the University of San Francisco, where his 1951 team went undefeated,  before moving on to the Chicago Cardinals, Washington Redskins, and Notre Dame. In one season with the Cards, they went 4-8, and while the Redskins had an 8-4 record in 1955, overall Washington was 26-32-2 in five years under Kuharich’s direction.  The unprecedented losing record with the Fighting Irish made his future coaching prospects appear dim.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had been public relations director at the University of San Francisco during Kuharich’s tenure there, where they had become friends, and it was widely rumored that Rozelle had pressured Wolman to hire Kuharich when the coaching job became available. While the rumor was denied by all parties, it poisoned the atmosphere for Kuharich in Philadelphia from the start.

Kuharich was initially hired to a four-year contract. When asked if he was concerned about not being Wolman’s first choice, the new coach indicated that “it doesn’t concern me in the least.” Holdover Vince McNally was to remain as general manager, but he resigned just prior to the ’64 regular season.

Kuharich’s teams had featured strong running games, but he indicated from the start that he wanted the Eagles to adopt a more wide-open style.  He also made a series of major trades that radically reconstructed the roster. Gone were QB Sonny Jurgensen, flanker Tommy McDonald, FB Clarence Peaks, HB Ted Dean, OT J.D. Smith, DB Jimmy Carr, and LB Lee Roy Caffey. In their place arrived QB Norm Snead from the Redskins, C Jim Ringo and FB Earl Gros from Green Bay, flanker Red Mack and DB Glenn Glass from the Steelers, DE Don Hultz and split end Ray Poage from Minnesota, and veteran all-purpose kicker Sam Baker from the Cowboys, who was accompanied by DT John Meyers and offensive lineman Lynn Hoyem in the McDonald trade. In the deal that sent Smith to Detroit, the Eagles obtained promising DT Floyd Peters and aging HB Ollie Matson, who had played for Kuharich at USF. In addition, the Eagles had drafted OT Bob Brown out of Nebraska in the first round and also added highly-mobile QB Jack Concannon from Boston College in the second.  There was some fine holdover talent in HB Timmy Brown, who had set records for all-purpose yards in each of the previous two seasons, TE Pete Retzlaff, and MLB Dave Lloyd, among others.

The refurbished Eagles started the 1964 season off with an impressive 38-7 win over the declining Giants on their way to a 6-8 record. Snead had a decent year, although when given a late-season opportunity to start against the Cowboys, Concannon put on an exciting show with his flashy running ability while tossing two TD passes. When Timmy Brown went down with an injury, Matson played well in relief. 17th round draft pick Mike Morgan moved into the starting lineup at outside linebacker and undrafted free agent safety Joe Scarpati was a pleasant surprise. Baker even set a new club record with 16 field goals.

While the Eagles failed to beat anyone of consequence, they were an improved team and a satisfied Jerry Wolman took the step of signing Kuharich to a 15-year contract as general manager. It was another eyebrow-raising move that would become a point of derision in the years ahead.

The team dropped to 5-9 in 1965 as the often-productive offense was offset by a defensive line that, while benefiting from the play of Peters at tackle, was poor at rushing the passer and necessitated a heavy blitzing scheme to compensate, thus putting additional pressure on the backs. The All-Pro linebacker Baughan complained and was dealt to the Rams after the season, soon followed by star CB Irv Cross. The deals highlighted the growing friction between Kuharich and talented veterans with strong personalities that led to questionable trades.

His many malapropisms, such as “We’re planning not only for the future, but for the ensuing seasons, too” and “It’s a horse of a different fire department”, combined with his tendency to talk in circles when answering questions from reporters added to the negative perception of the coach.

The Eagles put together a surprising 9-5 record in 1966 which belied several glaring weaknesses. First, Kuharich’s handling of quarterbacks, always a source of concern, came to a head as Snead, who had problems with consistency even in his best years, struggled and was benched in favor of backups King Hill and Concannon. Insisting that he had “three starting quarterbacks”, Kuharich often kept the trio in the dark up until game time as to which would be starting. While the running game was effective, with a fine stable of backs supplemented by the exciting Concannon when he was in the lineup, the passing attack suffered accordingly. And while Scarpati enjoyed a good season at free safety, the Eagles were vulnerable defensively to teams with strong passing attacks. Despite the winning record, they were outscored 326 to 340. They earned an appearance in the Playoff Bowl, the postseason exhibition game between second place teams in each conference, and lost to the Colts.

Kuharich made more major trades in the offseason, dealing Concannon to the Bears for TE Mike Ditka and Earl Gros to Pittsburgh for flanker Gary Ballman. Snead responded with an outstanding year, but spent much of it on his back as injuries depleted the offensive line, most notably the star tackle Bob Brown. While split end Ben Hawkins had a breakout year, leading the league in pass receiving yards (1265), and FB Tom Woodeshick more than adequately replaced Gros as the starting fullback, the Eagles ended up back under .500 with a 6-7-1 record.

The Eagles crashed in an ugly 1968 season that culminated in a 2-12 record and had Kuharich at odds with many of the players, most notably Ditka and Ballman. “Joe Must Go” buttons were worn by disaffected fans who booed the beleaguered coach unmercifully, and the local sportswriters, with whom the coach always had an uneasy relationship, were quick to fan the flames. In the meantime, Wolman had gone bankrupt and was forced to sell the club to local trucker Leonard Tose. Tose fired Kuharich, who had 11 years left on his contract.

Joe Kuharich’s overall record in five years coaching the Eagles was 28-41-1 and contained just the one winning season. His legacy of questionable trades and poor handling of personnel overshadowed any successes he had. 

February 26, 2013

MVP Profile: Derrick Brooks, 2002

Linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers



Age:  29
8th season in pro football & with Buccaneers
College: Florida State
Height: 6’0”   Weight: 235

Prelude:
The Buccaneers took Brooks in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft, and he moved into the lineup at OLB and was second on the team with 79 tackles as a rookie. Steady and solid, with outstanding range, he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first of 10 straight years in his third season. He was used effectively both against the run and in pass coverage and regularly led the team in tackles. The defense fueled Tampa Bay’s rise into a contender, although Brooks was coming off a 2001 season in which he played hurt for most of the season.

2002 Season Summary
Appeared in all 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Sacks – 1
Interceptions – 5 [10, tied with five others]
Most interceptions, game – One on 5 occasions
Int. yards – 218 [3]
Most int. return yards, game – 97 (on 1 int.) at Baltimore 9/15
Int. TDs – 3 [1]
Fumble recoveries – 1
Fumble recovery TDs – 1
Forced fumbles – 1
Tackles – 88
Assists – 31

Scoring
TDs – 4
Points – 24

Postseason: 3 G
Sacks – 0.5
Interceptions – 2
Int. return yards – 44
TD – 1

Awards & Honors:
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: AP
1st team All-NFL: AP, PFWA, Sporting News
1st team All-NFC: Pro Football Weekly
Pro Bowl

Buccaneers went 12-4 to finish first in the NFC South while leading the NFL in total defense (4044 yards allowed), passing defense (2490 yards), fewest points allowed (196), and touchdowns allowed (18). Won NFC Divisional playoff over San Francisco 49ers (31-6), NFC Championship over Philadelphia Eagles (27-10), and Super Bowl over Oakland Raiders (48-21).

Aftermath:
Brooks continued to excel and was a consensus first-team All-Pro again in 2004 and ’05. His career finally came to an end when he was released by the Bucs following the 2008 season – still having been chosen to the Pro Bowl for the 11th time. Over the course of 14 seasons, Brooks had 13.5 sacks, 25 interceptions that he returned for 530 yards and 6 touchdowns, and over 1300 tackles.

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MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself). Also includes Associated Press NFL Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year.

[Updated 2/4/14]

February 24, 2013

1985: Franco Kicks 5 Field Goals to Propel Bulls Over Stars



The Philadelphia Stars had appeared in the first two United States Football League Championship games, and won the second. For the 1985 season, they had become the Baltimore Stars in anticipation of the USFL’s move to the fall for ’86. While it created an awkward arrangement, with practice facilities in Philadelphia and home games shifted to Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland, the Stars were still a strong team on both sides of the ball. The conservative offense continued to be directed by QB Chuck Fusina and featured RB Kelvin Bryant, and the defense was outstanding, having given up a league-lowest average of 12.5 points per game in ’84. Organizationally, under owner Myles Tannenbaum, President/GM Carl Peterson, and Head Coach Jim Mora, the Stars were the class of the league.

They opened the 1985 season on February 24 against the Jacksonville Bulls. Coming off a 6-12 record in their inaugural campaign, the Bulls had admirable fan support (an average attendance of 46,730 per game). Coached by Lindy Infante, the team had taken steps to improve the offense by dealing for 35-year-old veteran QB Brian Sipe, most recently of the New Jersey Generals, and adding RB Mike Rozier, whose rookie season was spent with the defunct Pittsburgh Maulers.   

A crowd of 51,045, the biggest of the USFL’s opening week, was on hand at the Gator Bowl. Near the end of the scoreless first quarter, Sipe went down with a shoulder separation after being hit from the blind side by CB Bill Hardee in the process of completing a seven-yard pass on a third-down play and backup Robbie Mahfouz took over for the Bulls. Sipe left the contest after having completed five of six passes for 51 yards.

Brian Franco got the Bulls on the board first with a 42-yard field goal. He and Baltimore’s David Trout traded three-pointers for the remainder of the period, with Franco connecting again from 24 yards in between Trout’s kicks from 30 and 27 yards. The score was 6-6 at the half.

Early in the third quarter, Fusina was picked off by Jacksonville safety Don Bessillieu. It set up Franco’s longest field goal of the day, from 51 yards, which barely cleared the crossbar. With 5:31 remaining in the period, and capping a 10-play, 69-yard drive, Mahfouz threw to FB Marvin Lewis for a two-yard touchdown. Jacksonville led by 16-6 after three quarters.

Franco added two more field goals in the final period, from 27 and 50 yards, the first following a second Fusina interception. The last field goal also followed a turnover when Bessillieu picked up a fumble by Stars FB David Riley and ran it 40 yards to the Baltimore 45. The score was 22-6 with 8:40 left in the contest.

Early in the fourth quarter, Fusina was sidelined with a thumb injury, bringing backup Tim Riordan into the game for the Stars. Now with one minute remaining in the contest, Riordan threw to WR Herbert Harris for a three-yard touchdown that he then followed with a pass to WR Willie Collier for a successful two-point conversion.

The ending turned dramatic as the Stars successfully executed an onside kick that was recovered by LB Larry McCoy. However, after advancing to the Jacksonville 32, Riordan was sacked for a ten-yard loss and Baltimore was able to run just two more plays before time ran out. Jacksonville won by a final score of 22-14.

The Stars had the edge in total yards (340 to 240) and first downs (23 to 12). They did well against Jacksonville’s running attack, holding the Bulls to 57 yards on 22 attempts while gaining 82 yards on their own 27 carries. However, the uncharacteristically sloppy defending champs also turned the ball over four times, to none suffered by the Bulls. Jacksonville also recorded four sacks, to none by Baltimore.

After replacing Brian Sipe, Robbie Mahfouz (pictured below) completed 17 of 24 passes for 132 yards with a TD and no interceptions. The team’s leading receiver was TE Mark Keel, who caught 6 passes for 54 yards. Mike Rozier rushed for 30 yards on 13 carries.  Brian Franco tied the USFL record with his five field goals in as many attempts.



For the Stars, Chuck Fusina was successful on 8 of 15 throws for 122 yards with no TDs but two interceptions before having to leave the game. Tim Riordan completed 13 of his 21 passes for 117 yards and one TD with none intercepted. Kelvin Bryant gained 53 yards on 13 rushing attempts. Willie Collier had 7 pass receptions for 112 yards and WR Scott Fitzkee contributed 64 yards on his 4 catches.

“Brian Franco had an incredible day,” exclaimed Coach Lindy Infante as he presented his kicker with a game ball.

“I have mixed emotions about this game,” added Infante, referencing the injury to Sipe. “Naturally, I’m upset we’ve lost a player of Brian’s ability, but we beat an awful good football team and I have to be happy about that.”

Franco had been cut by the Stars in favor of Trout two seasons before. He had also been cut by Jacksonville the previous year but was re-signed three games into the season. His opening-game performance ignited a fine season in which Franco was successful on 24 of 29 field goal attempts, was perfect on 45 extra points, and ended up with 117 points, which ranked fifth in the league and second among placekickers.

Sipe was diagnosed with a “complete shoulder separation” and was out for 12 weeks. In the meantime, veteran NFL backup QB Ed Luther took over the starting job. Robbie Mahfouz returned to the bench and ended up completing 24 of 38 passes for 205 yards with two TDs and an interception.

The Bulls put together a 9-9 record to finish sixth in the seven-team Eastern Conference. While the Stars continued to struggle during the first half of the season, they won five of their last six games and ended up in fourth place at 10-7-1. Having qualified for the postseason, they went on to retain the USFL title in the league’s last game.

February 22, 2013

Rookie of the Year: Raymond Chester, 1970

Tight End, Oakland Raiders



Age: 22
College: Morgan State
Height: 6’3”   Weight: 220

Prelude:
With veteran Billy Cannon coming up on his 11th season and backup Roger Hagberg having died tragically in an auto accident, the Raiders were in the market for a tight end. They took Chester in the first round of the 1970 NFL draft (24th overall), impressed with the speed he brought to the position. Cannon was let go, thus making room for the rookie in the starting lineup.

1970 Season Summary
Appeared in all 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 42      
Most receptions, game – 8 (for 110 yds.) vs. Washington 10/19
Yards – 556
Most yards, game - 110 (on 8 catches) vs. Washington 10/19
Average gain – 13.2
TDs – 7 [9, tied with Fred Biletnikoff, Roy Jefferson & Jack Snow]
100-yard receiving games – 2

Scoring
TDs – 7 [18, tied with nine others]
Points – 42

Postseason: 2 G
Pass receptions – 4
Most pass receptions, game – 2 vs. Miami, AFC Divisional playoff; at Baltimore, AFC Championship
Pass receiving yards – 83
Most receiving yards, game – 47 vs. Miami, AFC Divisional playoff
Average yards per reception – 20.8
Pass Receiving TDs - 0

Awards & Honors:
NFL Rookie of the Year: NEA
2nd team All-AFC: UPI
Pro Bowl

Raiders went 8-4-2 to finish first in the AFC West while leading the NFL in total offense (4829 yards). Won AFC Divisional playoff over Miami Dolphins (21-14). Lost AFC Championship to Baltimore Colts (27-17).

Aftermath:
Chester went to the Pro Bowl after the 1971 and ’72 seasons, although his numbers were below those of his first year. But while his output was 62 catches over those two seasons, 15 of them went for touchdowns. He was dealt to the Baltimore Colts for DE Bubba Smith in 1973 and, over the course of five seasons with them, caught 148 passes for 2122 yards and 11 TDs. Chester returned to the Raiders in 1978 and, in ’79, achieved NFL career highs in pass receptions (58) and yards (712) while earning a fourth Pro Bowl selection. His second stint with the Raiders came to an end in 1981, but in ’83 he played for the Oakland Invaders of the USFL and caught 68 passes for 951 yards and five TDs to earn All-League honors, after which he retired. For his 12-year NFL career, he had 364 pass receptions for 5013 yards (13.8 avg.) and 48 touchdowns.

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Rookie of the Year Profiles feature players who were named Rookie of the Year in the NFL, AFL (1960-69), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press – Offense or Defense, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, or the league itself – Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year). 

[Updated 2/4/14]

February 20, 2013

1995: Panthers Sign First Two Veteran Free Agents



On February 20, 1995, three days into the official free agency signing period, the expansion Carolina Panthers signed their first two unrestricted veteran free agents. PK John Kasay (pictured at right) and DE Mike Fox were both given five-year contracts and, each in their way signified the priorities of the new club as it built toward both the ’95 NFL season and beyond. The organization was taking immediate steps to set the tone for the defense as well as build effective special teams.

“We proved we’re going to aggressively pursue talent, and we’re headed in the right direction by signing Mike and John,” said GM Bill Polian.

The contract given to Fox raised some eyebrows ($9 million for the five years) since, while starting every game for the Giants in 1994, he had just 40 tackles (29 solo, 11 assists) and one sack. However, the Panthers were impressed with his toughness, intensity, durability, and 6’6” height. He had also been moved inside to tackle after playing four seasons as a defensive end, and the Panthers moved him back to the outside in their 3-4 alignment.

John Kasay had a strong leg and a 78.1 percent success rate on his field goals over the course of four years with Seattle. The concern there was that he had been playing his home games in a domed stadium and would not have that luxury in Carolina (Clemson University’s Memorial Stadium in ’95 and Ericsson Stadium, which later became Bank of America Stadium, thereafter). His five-year deal was for $4.3 million.

The Fox signing proved to be in line with other veteran defensive acquisitions that the new team made, including linebackers Sam Mills, Darion Conner, and Lamar Lathon; CB Tim McKyer; and SS Bubba McDowell. Likewise, Kasay was joined by veteran punter Tommy Barnhardt and kick returner Randy Baldwin. In all, Carolina signed 17 veteran free agents, taking advantage of plenty of salary cap space, which was more than any other NFL club.

Having failed to lure Joe Gibbs out of retirement, the Panthers made Dom Capers, who had been the defensive coordinator for the Steelers the previous three seasons, the club’s first head coach (and were penalized for violating the NFL’s anti-tampering rules as a result). “We looked to build a defense, then a kicking game, then an offense,” explained Capers regarding the new club’s signing strategy. 

The Panthers got off to the slow start typical of first-year teams, losing their first five games, but then reeled off four consecutive wins that included a stunning upset of the reigning NFL Champion 49ers. The ultimate record of 7-9 was the best for a modern NFL expansion team and set the stage for a division title and postseason run in 1996.

While overshadowed on the defense by the outstanding performance of the 36-year-old Sam Mills, Fox played well. In addition to 4.5 sacks, he was credited with a club-best 28 quarterback hurries and 10 batted passes along with 57 tackles. Kasay alleviated concerns about his ability to kick consistently outdoors by ranking fourth in the NFC in field goals - he was good on 26 of 33 attempts, a solid 78.8 percent.

Fox (pictured below) and Kasay were important cogs in Carolina’s 12-4 campaign in ’96 that resulted in a Division playoff win over Dallas and finally ended against the Packers in the NFC Championship game.  Utilizing the “zone blitz” scheme that Capers had developed at Pittsburgh, the linebacking corps of Mills, Lathon, and Kevin Greene justifiably received accolades as the backbone of the defense, while Fox’s ability to occupy blockers up front helped to present opportunities for the outside linebackers to rush the passer (Greene had 14.5 sacks and Lathon was right behind with 13.5). The fine defensive play took pressure off of the conservative offense, guided by second-year QB Kerry Collins, to good effect. Meanwhile, Kasay had a Pro Bowl year, connecting on a then-record 37 of his 45 field goal attempts (82.2 %) and scoring 145 points.



The high-flying Panthers, who had dramatically exceeded expectations in their first two seasons, fell to earth in 1997. Fox was a part of the problem as the defense that had fueled the ascent now led the slide to a 7-9 tally. The loss of Greene due to a contract dispute was the biggest issue, to be sure, and Lathon’s performance dropped off significantly as a result. Fox suffered injuries to both shoulders and appeared in just 11 games. Likewise, problems on the offensive side of the ball caused Kasay to have far fewer field goal opportunities. While hitting on a healthy 84.6 percent of his three-point tries, he attempted only 26 (and was successful on 22) in comparison to the 45 of the year before.

Fox was a reserve in 1998, with the team having added free agent DE Sean Gilbert plus rookie DE Jason Peter. It was a difficult year for the club in general, with the record falling to 4-12 amid turmoil and ending up with the departure of Capers.  It was the last season for Fox also, who had been such an important part of the defense in the first two overachieving seasons.

Kasay lasted with the Panthers far longer. He remained with the club until 2010 and was part of the NFC Championship squad of 2003. One of the first players signed, he ended up being the last of the original Panthers to play for the team. While he missed time due to a couple of significant leg injuries along the way (most notably in 2002, when he was limited to just two games), over the course of 15 years in Carolina he kicked 351 field goals out of 424 attempts (82.8 %) and 429 extra points (missing a total of nine). Along with his 1482 points, he set significant career standards in those categories for the young franchise.     

February 18, 2013

MVP Profile: Ken Stabler, 1976

Quarterback, Oakland Raiders



Age:  31 (Dec. 25)
9th season in pro football & with Raiders (counting 1968 and ‘69 seasons, as detailed in Prelude)
College: Alabama
Height: 6’3”   Weight: 215

Prelude:
Following an outstanding college career, the left-handed Stabler was chosen by the Raiders in the second round of the 1968 NFL/AFL draft. He was farmed out for a brief apprenticeship in the Continental Football League in ’68 and spent 1969 on injured reserve before he saw his first regular season NFL action as the third-string QB in 1970. Knee injuries robbed Stabler of his mobility, but “The Snake” was an accurate passer who took over as starting QB in 1973 and led the league in completion percentage (62.7) while earning selection to the Pro Bowl. He followed that up with a MVP and consensus All-Pro season in 1974 in which he led the NFL with 26 TD passes and a TD percentage of 8.4 as the Raiders advanced to the AFC Championship game for the second straight year. They made it three straight in ’75, although Stabler had a lesser year as he struggled with another knee injury and tossed 24 interceptions.

1976 Season Summary
Appeared in 12 of 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Passing
Attempts – 291 [13, tied with Greg Landry]
Most attempts, game – 38 vs. Pittsburgh 9/12
Completions – 194 [7]
Most completions, game – 22 at Kansas City 9/20
Yards – 2737 [4]
Most yards, game – 342 vs. Pittsburgh 9/12
Completion percentage – 66.7 [1]
Yards per attempt – 9.4 [1]
TD passes – 27 [1]
Most TD passes, game – 4 vs. Cincinnati 12/6
Interceptions – 17 [4]
Most interceptions, game – 4 vs. Pittsburgh 9/12, vs. Kansas City 11/14
Passer rating – 103.4 [1]
300-yard passing games – 2
200-yard passing games – 9

Rushing
Attempts – 7
Yards – -2
Yards per attempt – -0.3
TDs – 1

Scoring
TDs – 1
Points - 6

Postseason: 3 G
Pass attempts – 67
Most attempts, game - 32 vs. New England, AFC Divisional playoff
Pass completions – 41
Most completions, game - 19 vs. New England, AFC Divisional playoff
Passing yardage – 501
Most yards, game - 233 vs. New England, AFC Divisional playoff
TD passes – 4
Most TD passes, game - 2 vs. Pittsburgh, AFC Championship
Interceptions – 0

Rushing attempts – 1
Most rushing attempts, game - 1 vs. New England, AFC Divisional playoff
Rushing yards – 1
Most rushing yards, game - 1 vs. New England, AFC Divisional playoff
Average gain rushing – 1.0
Rushing TDs – 1

Awards & Honors:
NFL Player of the Year: Bert Bell Award
AFC Player of the Year: Sporting News
1st team All-NFL: Pro Football Weekly
2nd team All-NFL: AP, PFWA, NEA
1st team All-AFC: Pro Football Weekly, Sporting News
2nd team All-AFC: UPI
Pro Bowl

Raiders went 13-1 to finish first in the AFC West with the conference’s best record while leading the NFL in touchdown passes (33). Won AFC Divisional playoff over New England Patriots (24-21), AFC Championship over Pittsburgh Steelers (24-7), and Super Bowl over Minnesota Vikings (32-14).

Aftermath:
Stabler was again a Pro Bowl selection in 1977 and threw for a career-high 3615 yards in 1979. Traded to the Houston Oilers for QB Dan Pastorini with the expectation that he would get the Oilers into the Super Bowl, he instead endured two disappointing seasons before moving on to New Orleans for the last three years of his career. Overall, Stabler threw for 27,938 yards and, prone to taking chances, gave up 222 interceptions as opposed to 194 TDs. However, he was named to the Pro Bowl four times, his regular season record was 96-49-1, and he was 7-5 in postseason play.

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MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself). 

[Updated 2/5/14]

February 16, 2013

Rookie of the Year: Tim Bowens, 1994

Defensive Tackle, Miami Dolphins



Age: 21
College: Mississippi
Height: 6’4”   Weight: 317

Prelude:
Bowens was taken by the Dolphins in the first round of the 1994 NFL draft (20th overall) despite concerns about his weight and having played only nine games at the major college level. Still, he had performed well in pre-draft workouts and it was hoped that he would be able to dominate from the inside of the defensive line. While his lack of experience was apparent in his pass rushing during his rookie year, he excelled at stuffing the run.

1994 Season Summary
Appeared in all 16 games
(Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20)

Sacks – 3
Most sacks, game – 1 at Minnesota 9/25, at NY Jets 11/27, vs. Detroit 12/25
Interceptions – 0
Fumble recoveries – 0
Forced fumbles – 2
Tackles – 44
Assists – 8

Postseason: 2 G
Sacks – 0
Interceptions – 0
TD – 0

Awards & Honors:
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year: AP, PFWA
2nd team All-AFC: UPI

Dolphins went 10-6 to finish first in the AFC East. Won AFC Wild Card playoff over Kansas City Chiefs (27-17). Lost Divisional playoff to San Diego Chargers (22-21).

Aftermath:
The next few seasons featured uneven play from Bowens, in which he dominated at times but not consistently. However, he broke out with a Pro Bowl season in 1998 as the Dolphins ranked third in defense. Bowens continued to give Miami solid play in the middle of the defensive line. While he struggled with his weight, he could be surprisingly quick in spurts. He was selected to a second Pro Bowl in 2002 but a back injury limited him to two games in 2004, his last season. Always far better against the run than the pass during his 11-season career, Bowens had a total of 22 sacks and was twice selected to the Pro Bowl. While widely perceived to be a risky first-round draft choice in 1994, he went on to have a solid pro career.

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Rookie of the Year Profiles feature players who were named Rookie of the Year in the NFL (including NFC/AFC), AFL (1960-69), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press – Offense or Defense, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, or the league itself – Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year). 

February 14, 2013

MVP Profile: Lawrence Taylor, 1981

Linebacker, New York Giants



Age: 22
1st season in pro football
College: North Carolina
Height: 6’3”   Weight: 237

Prelude:
Following a college career in which he was a consensus first-team All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year for 1980, Taylor was chosen in the first round by the Giants in 1981 (second overall). It was expected that he would start right away, and he did with an immediate impact.

1981 Season Summary
Appeared and started in all 16 games
(Bracketed numbers indicate league rank)

Sacks – N/A
Interceptions – 1
Int. return yards – 1
Int. TDs – 0
Fumble recoveries – 1

Postseason: 2 G
Sacks – N/A
Interceptions – 0

Awards & Honors:
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: AP
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year: AP
1st team All-NFL: AP, PFW, NEA, Pro Football Weekly, Sporting News
1st team All-NFC: UPI, Pro Football Weekly
Pro Bowl

Giants went 9-7 to finish third in the NFC East while qualifying for the postseason as a Wild Card – the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 1963. Won NFC Wild Card playoff over Philadelphia Eagles (27-21). Lost NFC Divisional playoff to San Francisco 49ers (38-24).

Aftermath:
With his attacking style of play, Taylor almost immediately set new standards for outside linebackers and was a consensus first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in each of his first six seasons and NFL Defensive Player of the Year again in 1982. In 1986 he received consensus MVP honors and was the AP Defensive Player of the Year for a third time following a season in which Taylor recorded 20.5 sacks and the Giants won the Super Bowl. Taylor continued to be the leader of the Giants defense, achieving consensus first-team All Pro honors twice more and being selected to four more Pro Bowls (for a total of 10 consecutive, going back to his rookie year). He retired following the 1993 season, with 132.5 career sacks, and his #56 was retired by the Giants. Taylor was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1999.

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MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself). Also includes Associated Press NFL Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year.

February 12, 2013

2007: Chargers Fire Marty Schottenheimer as Head Coach



The 2006 NFL season had ended in bitter disappointment for the San Diego Chargers, who put together the league’s best record at 14-2 but lost their only postseason game – a Divisional round contest against the New England Patriots. Several weeks later, on February 12, 2007, they took the step of firing Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer.

While the Chargers had been 47-33 under the 63-year-old coach, including 35-13 in the last three years, they were 0-2 in the playoffs. However, Schottenheimer could have survived the playoff disappointments – and initially it appeared that he would – but the bad relationship that existed between the head coach and GM A.J. Smith ultimately caused owner Dean Spanos to dismiss the coach, who cited a “dysfunctional situation” in making the surprise announcement

Two coordinators had already left to become head coaches (offensive coordinator Cam Cameron became head coach in Miami and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips moved on to the head job with the Cowboys) and two more assistant coaches left as well (tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski became offensive coordinator of the Browns and linebackers coach Greg Manusky moved to the 49ers as defensive coordinator). Schottenheimer had one year left on his contract, and was owed $3 million. He had turned down an offer for an additional year at $4.5 million three days after the playoff loss to the Patriots, which had apparently angered Spanos and Smith.

“This is absolutely unfair in my view,” said Schottenheimer in reaction. “We had no control over two guys who became head coaches in this league. We gave two guys an opportunity to be coordinators in this league. We’ve added a couple of guys that people should be very pleased with. The future coach will be very pleased as well.”

Smith had been promoted to general manager in April 2003 following the death from cancer of his predecessor, John Butler. Disagreements over personnel moves, such as QB Drew Brees being allowed to leave the club as a free agent, played a role in the rupture between Smith and Schottenheimer.

The 2006 Chargers had gotten off to a 4-2 start before winning ten straight games to close out the regular season. They were the league’s highest-scoring club as they scored 492 points and 59 touchdowns while on defense the Chargers led the NFL with 61 sacks. Top players on offense were QB Philip Rivers, who stepped up admirably in place of Brees; RB LaDainian Tomlinson, the consensus league MVP who gained 2323 yards from scrimmage and also set a new season scoring record; and TE Antonio Gates, who topped the receivers with 71 catches for 924 yards and 9 TDs. The key defensive players were NT Jamal Williams, linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, and CB Quentin Jammer. Specialists were also strong with Pro Bowl PK Nate Kaeding, who missed only three of his 29 field goal attempts; punter Mike Scifres, who had 35 punts end up inside the 20 as opposed to just two touchbacks; and long snapper David Binn, another Pro Bowl selection.

The ability to turn teams around and win consistently had been signatures of Schottenheimer since he first became a NFL head coach with the Cleveland Browns during the 1984 season. The Browns went 44-27 under his direction with no losing records. Moving on to the Kansas City Chiefs, the club went 101-58-1 and didn’t fall under .500 until Schottenheimer’s tenth (and final) year at the helm. In one year in Washington, the Redskins were 8-8.

His 200-126-1 record during the regular season was the most successful of any coach not to reach the Super Bowl. However, the pattern of falling short in the postseason also became a part of his legacy. To be sure, the Browns came within a John Elway drive and ill-timed Earnest Byner fumble of advancing to the Super Bowl following the 1986 and ’87 seasons, respectively. But his teams were a combined 5-13 in the postseason and the loss to New England was his sixth straight in the playoffs, thus exacerbating the negative impression. On four occasions, his teams had entered the postseason with the best record in the conference (1986 Browns, 1995 Chiefs, 1997 Chiefs, as well as the 2006 Chargers).

A defense-minded coach (he had played linebacker, coached that position for three teams, and was elevated from defensive coordinator in Cleveland), Schottenheimer’s teams were known for utilizing a power-running attack on offense and attacking style on defense that yielded many sacks and turnovers. Even while updating to an offense that went to the air more often, he still never strayed far from the running game.

To succeed Schottenheimer, the Chargers went with Norv Turner, who brought a 58-82-1 record from his previous head coaching stops at Washington and Oakland and had most recently been offensive coordinator in San Francisco. Recognized for his prowess as an offensive assistant, he had yet to achieve success as a head coach.

With Turner at the helm, the Chargers topped the AFC West in each of the next three seasons, going a combined 32-16, although in 2008 it took a late charge to win the division with a mediocre 8-8 record. They did win playoff games in 2007 and ’08, advancing all the way to the AFC Championship game in Turner’s first year. But after failing to reach the playoffs in the ensuing three seasons, through 2012, Smith and Turner were let go.

The firing by the Chargers marked the end of Marty Schottenheimer’s NFL coaching career, although his name came up occasionally in rumors and he had success in one abbreviated year as head coach and general manager of the Virginia Destroyers of the United Football League (the Destroyers went 3-1 in the shortened 2011 season and won the four-team league’s title). 

February 11, 2013

Rookie of the Year: Kendrell Bell, 2001

Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers



Age: 23
College: Georgia
Height: 6’1”   Weight: 236

Prelude:
Bell was chosen by the Steelers in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft (39th overall) to compete for the inside linebacker position vacated by Levon Kirkland. While he was slow in picking up pass coverage skills, he showed from training camp that he was suited to the starting lineup with his explosive speed and pass rushing ability. He became the first rookie to start a season-opening game for the Steelers since Hall of Fame MLB Jack Lambert in 1974.

2001 Season Summary
Appeared and started in all 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Sacks – 9 [19, tied with six others]
Most sacks, game – 2 at Kansas City 10/14, vs. Jacksonville 11/18, vs. Cleveland 1/6
Interceptions – 0
Fumble recoveries – 0
Forced fumbles – 1
Tackles – 69
Assists – 13

Postseason: 2 G
Sacks – 1
Interceptions – 0
TD – 0

Awards & Honors:
NFL Rookie of the Year: Sporting News
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year: AP, PFWA
2nd team All-NFL: AP
Pro Bowl

Steelers went 13-3 to finish first in the AFC Central while leading the NFL in fewest overall yards allowed (4137) and rushing defense (1195 yards) and the AFC in fewest points allowed (212). Won AFC Divisional playoff over Baltimore Ravens (27-10). Lost AFC Championship to New England Patriots (24-17).

Aftermath:
Bell was nagged by an ankle injury in 2002 that caused him to miss four games and robbed him of some of his effectiveness. While he bounced back to play in every game in ’03, he was still far better against the run than in dropping back into pass coverage. However injuries, most notably a sports hernia that required surgery, limited Bell to just three games in 2004 and, released by the Steelers, he moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs. His three seasons in Kansas City were ultimately disappointing as he lost his starting job and continued to be nagged by injuries. Forced to retire in 2007, he ended up with 20.5 sacks in seven seasons – just 11.5 following his first year – and his Pro Bowl selection in 2001 was his only one. In all, he failed to fully live up to the outstanding potential he displayed during his Rookie of the Year season.

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Rookie of the Year Profiles feature players who were named Rookie of the Year in the NFL (including NFC/AFC), AFL (1960-69), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press – Offense or Defense, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, or the league itself – Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year). 

[Updated 2/5/14]

February 9, 2013

MVP Profile: Randall Cunningham, 1990

Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles



Age:  27
6th season in pro football & with Eagles
College: NevadaLas Vegas
Height: 6’4”   Weight: 203

Prelude:
Taken by the Eagles in the 2nd round of the 1985 NFL draft, Cunningham saw some action in place of veteran QB Ron Jaworski, and while he completed only 42 % of his passes, he showed off his exciting running ability. In ’86, under new Head Coach Buddy Ryan, he saw more action in place of Jaworski and took over as the starting quarterback during the strike-interrupted 1987 season. Cunningham threw for 2786 yards and 23 TDs in 12 games and also rushed for 505 yards. He followed up with a 1988 season in which he set a new club record with 3808 passing yards and rushed for 624 yards as the Eagles won the NFC East. Cunningham had another Pro Bowl year in 1989, passing for 3400 yards and running for 621, but the Eagles again lost in the first round of the playoffs. An outstanding talent who could often improvise brilliantly, Cunningham was less adept at reading defenses and often irritated teammates with his demeanor.

1990 Season Summary
Appeared and started in all 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Passing
Attempts – 465 [6]
Most attempts, game – 42 at NY Giants 9/9, at Washington 10/21
Completions – 271 [6]
Most completions, game – 25 at NY Giants 9/9
Yards – 3466 [6]
Most yards, game – 274 vs. Indianapolis 9/30
Completion percentage – 58.3 [7]
Yards per attempt – 7.5 [7]
TD passes – 30 [2, 1st in NFC]
Most TD passes, game – 4 vs. New England 11/4
Interceptions – 13 [14, tied with Warren Moon, Jeff George & Steve Walsh]
Most interceptions, game – 3 at NY Giants 9/9
Passer rating – 91.6 [5]
200-yard passing games – 11

Rushing
Attempts – 118
Most attempts, game - 13 (for 90 yds.) vs. Minnesota 10/15
Yards – 942 [9]
Most yards, game – 124 yards (on 8 carries) vs. New England 11/4
Yards per attempt – 8.0 [1]
TDs – 5
100-yard rushing games – 1

Scoring
TDs – 5
Points - 30

Postseason: 1 G (NFC Wild Card playoff vs. Washington)
Pass attempts – 29
Pass completions – 15
Passing yardage – 205
TD passes – 0
Interceptions – 1

Rushing attempts – 7
Rushing yards – 80
Average gain rushing – 11.4
Rushing TDs – 0

Awards & Honors:
NFL MVP: PFWA, Bert Bell Award
1st team All-NFL: PFWA, Pro Football Weekly
1st team All-NFC: UPI, Pro Football Weekly
Pro Bowl

Eagles went 10-6 to finish second in the NFC East and qualify for the postseason as a Wild Card while leading the NFL in rushing (2556 yards) and the NFC in scoring (396 points) and touchdowns (48). Lost Wild Card playoff to Washington Redskins (20-6).

Aftermath:
Cunningham was lost to a season-ending injury in the first game of 1991 and, while he successfully returned in ’92, injuries became more of an issue as he missed most of 1993 with a broken leg. Benched in favor of Rodney Peete in ’95, he sat out a year in retirement before returning as a backup with the Vikings in 1997. When starting QB Brad Johnson was injured early in ’98, Cunningham put together an outstanding season, leading the league in passing (106.0 rating) while throwing 34 TD passes against just 10 interceptions. However, the team was upset by Atlanta in the NFC Championship game and Cunningham played in just six games in ’99. He finished up his career for good following a year each in Dallas and Baltimore. In the end, he passed for 29,979 yards and 207 TDs, was the career rushing leader for quarterbacks (4928 yards), and had the best rushing average (6.4) of any player in NFL history with over 750 carries (775).

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MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself). 

[Updated 2/5/14]
[Updated 11/28/14]

February 8, 2013

1979: Tom Flores Becomes Head Coach of Raiders



On February 8, 1979 the managing general partner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis, confirmed that Tom Flores would succeed John Madden as head coach. Madden had been highly successful, leading the club to 112 wins and a NFL title over the course of a decade, but he stepped down due to health concerns – more specifically, an ulcer.

Just as he had done when he elevated Madden in 1969, Davis promoted an assistant coach with the team to the head coaching job. The 41-year-old Flores had been Oakland’s receivers coach since 1972 (he turned 42 before the season commenced). In contrast to the emotional and demonstrative Madden, Flores was quiet and calm. His elevation also made him the first Mexican-American head coach in NFL history.

“Of my 19 years in pro football, all but five have been with the Oakland Raiders,” said a happy Flores. “My heart has always been in Oakland with the community, the people, and the Raiders.”

“Tom is ready to be a head coach,” said an approving John Madden. “He has a lot of experience as a player and a coach. He knows everyone involved, the players, the administration, the set up. Tom did a good job as an assistant.”

Flores had been an original player with the Raiders in 1960 and became the starting quarterback. He performed well for a poor team and led the AFL in completion percentage (54.0) in the league’s inaugural year. A bout with tuberculosis cost him the 1962 season, but he came back to play admirably under Al Davis, then himself the new head coach, in ’63. He was traded to Buffalo in 1967 and finished his nine-year career with the Chiefs in their Super Bowl-winning season of ‘69. Flores returned to Oakland as an assistant on Madden’s staff.

After winning the Super Bowl following the 1976 season, the Raiders had gone 11-3 in ’77, losing the AFC Championship game to the upstart Denver Broncos, but then dropped to 9-7 and missed the postseason for the first time in seven years in 1978. 33-year-old QB Ken Stabler threw far too many interceptions. OT Art Shell and G Gene Upshaw, who had been stalwarts on the left side of the offensive line, were showing signs of wear. 36-year-old WR Fred Biletnikoff was also showing his age and was benched during the season. Similarly, the once-formidable defense was breaking down and veterans who had been obtained to fill holes, such as CB Monte Jackson, failed to produce as anticipated. In addition, trades to obtain veteran talent for the short-term had caused the Raiders to not have a first-round draft pick available for four straight years.

There were still plenty of assets, of course. All-Pro TE Dave Casper was coming off his most productive season. FB Mark van Eeghen rushed for 1080 yards, and rookie HB Arthur Whittington showed promise. Linebackers Ted Hendricks and Phil Villapiano were consistently outstanding.

With the added distraction of Davis fighting the league in order to move the franchise to Los Angeles, the Raiders again went 9-7 in 1979. Stabler bounced back from his subpar ’78 showing and benefited from heavy use of two-tight end sets that featured Casper and Raymond Chester. But the running attack ranked 24th in the league and the club was also 21st in overall team defense.

There was surprise in the offseason when the Raiders chose not to draft a running back in the first round, taking QB Marc Wilson out of Brigham Young instead. An even bigger shock came when they dealt Stabler to the Houston Oilers for QB Dan Pastorini. As Flores, who did not approve the trade, summed up, “We are getting a fine quarterback, but we are losing a great one.”

With Pastorini starting, Oakland got off to a 2-3 start in 1980. But when Pastorini went down with a season-ending broken leg against the Chiefs, backup Jim Plunkett took over with outstanding results. The former first overall draft choice of the Patriots in 1971 had been cast off by the 49ers and was an afterthought on Oakland’s bench in ’79. Now his career was rejuvenated at age 33 and the Raiders went 9-2 the rest of the way. There were other factors in the team’s turnaround: unheralded RB Kenny King ran for 761 yards in tandem with van Eeghen and rookie MLB Matt Millen was an outstanding addition to the defense, as were veteran CB Dwayne O’Steen and FS Burgess Owens. CB Lester Hayes led the NFL with 13 interceptions, fifth-year ILB Bob Nelson finally hit his stride, and OLB Rod Martin achieved stardom.

The Raiders finished second to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West with an 11-5 record, defeated the Oilers (and Stabler) in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, squeaked past Cleveland in the Divisional round, and beat the Chargers for the AFC title. They then dominated the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl to become the first Wild Card team to win a NFL title.

The unexpected Championship season of 1980 was followed by a precipitous drop in ’81. The Raiders went 7-9 and endured a stretch of three straight games in which they were shut out. Flores felt the heat following the franchise’s first losing record since 1964, in the second year of the Al Davis era, but was retained. The team finally moved to Los Angeles in 1982 – or at least played their home games there while they still practiced in Oakland - and rebounded to go 8-1 in a strike-shortened year. Rookie RB Marcus Allen had an immediate impact on the offense, while TE Todd Christensen went from unheralded backup and special teams player to star. With the usual emphasis on obtaining veteran talent, DE Lyle Alzado was added to the squad with good results.

The Raiders fell short in the postseason, but the stage was set for another successful Super Bowl appearance in 1983. Although Plunkett struggled and lost his starting job to Wilson for a time during the season, Allen and Christensen were productive on offense, third-year DE Howie Long was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time and the defense picked up another savvy veteran in CB Mike Haynes. LA finished strong and upset the high-powered Redskins for the NFL Championship.

The team went a combined 23-9 over the next two years to again reach the postseason, but there were no further titles. The story remained the same – a strong defense, Allen’s running and Christensen’s receiving on offense, and instability at quarterback, with Rusty Hilger joining the mix. LA went 8-8 in 1986 and despite the acquisition of multi-sport star RB Bo Jackson, fell further to 5-10 in the strike-interrupted ’87 season. Flores stepped down afterward – likely under pressure.

Flores’ overall record with the Raiders was 83-53, for a healthy .610 winning percentage, and a further 8-3 tally in the postseason that included two Super Bowl victories. The unflappable, low-key coach labored in the shadow of Al Davis, however, and never seemed to receive the recognition that his record might otherwise have drawn. It did not help change the impression that Oakland owed its successes more to the managing general partner than the coach when Flores became head coach and GM of the Seattle Seahawks in 1992 and the club went a combined 14-34 over three losing seasons. But his calm and steady leadership certainly was of benefit to the Raiders, particularly in keeping the team focused during periods of off-field turmoil, and none of the club’s other coaches – including the more highly-esteemed Madden – can match the two NFL titles achieved under Flores.