Saturday, February 12, 2011

Past Venue: Wrigley Field

Chicago, IL

Year opened: 1914
Capacity: 46,000

Weeghman Park, 1914-20
Cubs Park, 1920-26
Wrigley Field, 1926 to date

Pro football tenants:
Chicago Tigers (APFA), 1920
Chicago Bears (APFA/NFL), 1921-70
Chicago Cardinals (NFL), 1931-37, 39

Postseason games hosted:
NFL Championship, Bears 23 Giants 21, Dec. 17, 1933
NFL Championship, Redskins 28 Bears 21, Dec. 12, 1937
NFL Western Division playoff, Bears 33 Packers 14, Dec. 14, 1941
NFL Championship, Bears 37 Giants 9, Dec. 21, 1941
NFL Championship, Bears 41 Redskins 21, Dec. 26, 1943
NFL Championship, Bears 14 Giants 10, Dec. 29, 1963

Other tenants of note:
Chicago Whales (MLB – Federal League), 1914-15
Chicago Cubs (MLB – NL), 1916 to date
Chicago Sting (NASL), 1977-82, 84

Notes: The Bears obtained a portable bleacher section that added approximately 9000 seats to the normal stadium capacity for football games. In addition to the dates noted above, the NFL Cardinals played two home games at Wrigley Field in 1920 and one in 1958. Hosted college football games up until 1938, and again between Northwestern and Illinois, Nov. 20, 2010, although the presence of extra box seats added by the Cubs after the Bears left brought the end line of the east end zone uncomfortably close to a wall, and thus all offensive plays had to be run in the same direction. Hosted NHL Winter Classic, Chicago Blackhawks vs. Detroit Red Wings, 2009.

The stadium was originally named for Charlie Weeghman, owner of the Chicago Whales of major league baseball’s short-lived Federal League. When that league folded, Weeghman, as part of a syndicate that included William Wrigley Jr., bought the NL’s Chicago Cubs, who moved into the new stadium. The Cubs have owned it since 1916. It is the last surviving Federal League ballpark.

Fate: Still in use.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

1976: Jets Hire Lou Holtz as Head Coach

On February 10, 1976, the New York Jets announced that they had decided to dip into the college ranks to fill their head coaching vacancy. Lou Holtz, most recently the coach at North Carolina State, was named to the post.

The hiring was in line with a recent trend in the NFL toward taking on successful college coaches. UCLA’s Dick Vermeil had just been hired by the Eagles and John McKay of USC was chosen to be the first head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The 39-year-old Holtz was not well known nationally, but had built a reputation as a college head coach who could turn struggling programs around. The Jets, who had not produced a winning season since 1969, hoped that the amateur magician could work the same magic at the pro level. Holtz received a five-year contract.

Frail and looking more like a college professor than a football coach, Holtz had put together a 33-12-3 record, including four bowl appearances in as many seasons at NC State. It had been a losing program prior to his arrival, and he had achieved similar success at William & Mary before that.

“I have great confidence in myself,” Holtz said at his introductory press conference. “I believe in God, Lou Holtz and the New York Jets in that order. Coaching is coaching no matter what level you're at. You need a good staff and you need athletes and you need people who want to win. That's what I intend to have here.”

While Holtz was known as an offensive-minded coach in college, he made clear that defense would be his first priority in New York.

The Jets went 3-11 in 1975, with the lowest-ranked defense in the NFL. Head Coach Charley Winner, the designated successor to Weeb Ewbank following his retirement after the ’73 season, was fired nine games into his second year on the job. Offensive coordinator Ken Shipp took over in the interim to finish out the dismal season.

One of the initial concerns that the new coach had to deal with was veteran QB Joe Namath, who had openly suggested a trade rather than continue to take a battering with the woeful Jets. While Holtz indicated that he still wanted the 11-year veteran on the team, he also said “If Joe wants to play for us again and help us, fine. If he doesn’t, we’ll find someone else.” With their first pick in the ’76 draft, they took QB Richard Todd, who, like Namath, came out of Head Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s program at Alabama.

Beyond that, the offensive line was aging and the running game hindered by the loss of FB John Riggins, who had played out his option and signed as a free agent with the Redskins. Walt Michaels, an assistant under Ewbank in better days, was brought back as defensive coordinator to sort out the unit that had performed so abysmally in 1975.

Things did not go well for Holtz or the Jets in 1976. The coach tried to inject a college spirit into the team, and it fell flat. He wrote a fight song for the players that became a source of ridicule and had them line up by height along the sideline for the national anthem prior to each game. In short, he simply was not prepared for the pro game at that point in his career (and admitted as much years later).

The team, very much in turmoil, was still bad, too. There were 14 rookies on the roster, including Todd. While RB Clark Gaines, a first-year player who made the club as a free agent, was a pleasant surprise, many of the others proved not to be keepers. Gaines led the team in both rushing (724 yards) and pass receiving (41 catches).

The battered Namath threw for just 1090 yards with four touchdowns and 16 interceptions in his final season with the Jets. Todd started six games and the team won two of them. While he caught only 31 passes for 391 yards, TE Rich Caster was still highly regarded, and WR David Knight contributed 20 receptions for 403 yards (20.2 avg.).

The defense continued to be dreadful, ranking 26th in the league – only the expansion Buccaneers and Seahawks ranked lower. They intercepted 11 passes and registered a mere 16 sacks for the season. Still, FS Burgess Owens and SS Phil Wise played well, and LB Greg Buttle earned all-rookie honors and offered hope for the future.

The team’s final record was again 3-11, although Holtz didn’t last to the end. He accepted an offer to return to college coaching at Arkansas and left the Jets with one game remaining. As he stated upon announcing his decision, “God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros.” Director of Player Personnel Mike Holovak (formerly head coach of the Patriots) served as interim coach for the season finale, a 42-3 shellacking at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Holtz stayed at Arkansas for seven years before moving on briefly to the University of Minnesota and then Notre Dame. After stepping down as head coach of the Fighting Irish, he moved to the broadcast booth for two seasons and returned to college coaching once more at South Carolina, retiring for good in 2004.

Overall, Holtz compiled a 249-132-7 record as a college coach, going 12-8-2 in bowl games spread across six different programs, and won a national championship with Notre Dame in 1988. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, but his brief failure in the NFL likely soured any likelihood of being pursued by a pro team (although the Vikings reportedly showed some interest at the time he left Notre Dame in 1996).

As for the Jets, Walt Michaels was promoted to head coach in 1977 and, after a third straight 3-11 campaign, they began to show improvement. Helped along by some good drafts, New York eventually reached the playoffs in 1981 and ’82.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Past Venue: War Memorial Stadium

Buffalo, NY
aka Civic Stadium

Year opened: 1937
Capacity: 46,500, up from 35,000 upon opening

Roesch Memorial Stadium, 1937
Grover Cleveland Stadium, 1937
Civic Stadium, 1938-60
War Memorial Stadium, 1960-88

Pro football tenants:
Buffalo Indians/Tigers (AFL), 1940-41
Buffalo Bisons/Bills (AAFC), 1946-49
Buffalo Bills (AFL/NFL), 1960-72

Postseason games hosted:
AFL Eastern Division playoff, Patriots 26 Bills 8, Dec. 28, 1963
AFL Championship, Bills 20 Chargers 7, Dec. 26, 1964
AFL Championship, Chiefs 31 Bills 7, Jan. 1, 1967

Other tenants of note:
Buffalo Bisons (minor league baseball), 1961-70, 79-87

Notes: Built as a WPA project with construction commencing in 1935. The stadium was popularly referred to as “The Rockpile”. The NFL's Chicago Cardinals hosted five home games at the stadium (1938, 40, 42, 43, 58), the Philadelphia Eagles one in 1942. The stadium was also used for track events and stock car racing, and by the Canisius College baseball and football teams for an unspecified period. It was used for the filming of most of the baseball scenes in the movie “The Natural” (1984).

Fate: Demolished in 1988 and now the site of a high school athletic field. The northeast and southeast entrances were preserved

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

1936: First NFL Draft Held

The NFL’s annual draft of college talent has become a big and highly-anticipated offseason event. The brainchild of Eagles owner Bert Bell (who would go on to become league commissioner; pictured at right), the first one was held at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel on February 8, 1936.

Bell’s Eagles had come into being in 1933 and were a struggling club. With teams free to sign any player coming out of college that they wanted, strong clubs had an advantage in the bidding for talent and Bell recognized that this was bad for the overall competitive balance of the league. His suggestion that the NFL organize an annual draft, in which the weaker teams would get first choice of the best talent coming out of the college ranks, was adopted by the owners on May 19, 1935. While the format of the draft has changed over the years, the basic element in which the teams draft in inverse order of their finish during the previous regular season has remained the same.

The first draft consisted of nine rounds, with the Eagles, owner of the NFL’s worst record at 2-9 in 1935, going first and the Giants, who had gone 9-3, choosing last (Detroit had won the Championship game over New York, but had a lesser regular season record at 7-3-2. Currently, the NFL champion drafts last in each round, regardless of regular season record).

With the first overall pick, Philadelphia chose the Heisman Trophy-winning back from the University of Chicago, Jay Berwanger (pictured at left). Berwanger had no interest in playing pro football, and the Eagles ended up trading his rights to the Bears, who also had no luck in signing him.

The second choice, HB Riley Smith from Alabama, did play two seasons for the club that drafted him, the Redskins, but his career was cut short by injury. The first five picks were all backs (Bill Shakespeare of Notre Dame by Pittsburgh, Iowa’s Dick Crayne by Brooklyn, and Jim Lawrence of TCU by the Cardinals). The first lineman chosen was tackle Joe Stydahar by the Bears, with the sixth overall selection, and he went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Including Stydahar (pictured at right), four of the players chosen in the 1936 draft ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The others were FB Tuffy Leemans of George Washington, taken in the second round (18th overall) by the Giants; end Wayne Millner of Notre Dame, picked by the Boston Redskins with the 65th overall choice in the eighth round; and Colgate G Dan Fortmann, another selectee of the Bears, taken in the ninth (and final) round as the 78th overall choice.

End Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama was selected by the Dodgers in the fourth round, but he passed up pro football for the more secure opportunity of becoming an assistant coach at the college level (he was offered $175 per game to play for Brooklyn). Of course, he would go on to have a long and outstanding career as a college head coach.

The last player chosen, G Phil Flanagan from Holy Cross, was taken by the Giants but played instead with the Boston Shamrocks of the rival AFL (second version). In total, 81 players were selected by the nine teams.

While the introduction of the draft didn’t have an immediate effect on the league’s competitive balance – the Eagles, for instance, again had the league’s worst record during the 1936 season – over time teams like Philadelphia and the Chicago Cardinals were able to contend for and win championships in the late 1940s, helped significantly by players obtained through the draft. It would become a pattern that other clubs would emulate in the decades that followed.

Monday, February 7, 2011

2010: Saints Finally Reach the Top, Defeat Colts in Super Bowl XLIV

The New Orleans Saints had endured a long road to respectability after joining the NFL as an expansion team in 1967. They didn’t have so much as a .500 season until 1979 and didn’t post a winning record or appear in the playoffs until 1987. The Saints spent a year on the road in 2005 after heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina forced them to abandon their home stadium while it underwent repair and raised questions as to the franchise’s future in New Orleans. But they bounced back in ’06 to advance to the NFC Championship game, losing to the Bears. After dipping to 8-8 in 2008, they rebounded strongly in ’09 and, on February 7, 2010, reached the highest point of all as they met the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

The Saints, in their fourth season under Head Coach Sean Payton, featured an explosive offense led by QB Drew Brees (pictured above), who led the NFL with a 109.6 passer rating, a record 70.6 completion percentage, and 34 touchdown passes while throwing for 4388 yards and giving up only 12 interceptions. The receiving corps was a very talented one, led by 6’4”, 225-pound WR Marques Colston and including deep threats Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson. The running game consisted of a committee of backs led by RB Pierre Thomas. The defense, long a problem area, responded to the leadership of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and featured DE Will Smith, MLB Jonathan Vilma, CB Tracy Porter, and FS Darren Sharper.

New Orleans won its first 13 games of the 2009 regular season before finally succumbing to the Cowboys and ended up losing the last three contests to finish at 13-3. Having won the NFC South, if on something of a down note, the Saints crushed Arizona in the Divisional playoff and then got past the Vikings in overtime to win the NFC Championship.

Indianapolis, led by first-year Head Coach Jim Caldwell, was in the postseason for the eighth straight year and had won the Super Bowl following the 2006 season. As had been the case throughout, the key player was QB Peyton Manning, who threw for 4500 yards and 33 touchdowns, and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the tenth time. WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark both caught 100 passes and were Pro Bowl choices as well. RB Joseph Addai led a decent, if not spectacular, group of runners. The aggressive defense contained ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, MLB Gary Brackett, and FS Antoine Bethea.

Like the Saints, the Colts started off strong with 14 wins in ’09 before losing the last two to top the AFC South at 14-2. They defeated the Ravens in the Divisional round and outdistanced the spirited New York Jets in the AFC Championship game.

There was a crowd of 74,059 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami as New Orleans received the opening kickoff but went three-and-out in the first series. The Colts came out fast, utilizing a no-huddle offense through much of their initial drive. Manning started off with an 18-yard completion to Clark and was successful on a total of six short passes as Indianapolis went 53 yards in 11 plays, ending with a 38-yard field goal by Matt Stover to take the early lead.

The Saints got to midfield on their next possession and Thomas Morstead’s punt seemingly pinned the Colts down at their four yard line. But once again Indianapolis put together a solid drive, going 96 yards in 11 plays to score. In addition to Manning’s passes, Addai ran effectively, with 53 yards on just three carries. WR Pierre Garcon hauled in a Manning pass for a 19-yard touchdown and the Colts led by 10-0 after one quarter of play.

New Orleans drove into Indianapolis territory, helped by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty, but after reaching the 22 yard line, Brees was sacked by Freeney for a seven-yard loss on a third-and-three play. The Saints settled for a 46-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.

Following a short possession by the Colts, New Orleans again mounted a long drive. Brees hit on six straight passes, including 21 yards to WR Lance Moore and 27 yards to Colston, to get down to the Indianapolis three. Following a pass to Moore that gained nothing, a false start penalty moved the Saints back five yards, but they regained all of that and more when Thomas ran seven yards to the one. However, runs by RB Mike Bell on third down and Thomas on fourth down failed to penetrate into the end zone, and the Colts took over on downs.

Indianapolis was only able to get out to the ten yard line and punted. Brees fired a pass to Henderson for a 19-yard gain and two more completions got the ball down to the Colts’ 26. Hartley kicked a 44-yard field goal as the half ended, and the score stood at 10-6.

Kicking off to start the second half, the Saints surprised the Colts with Morstead executing an onside kick that bounced off the hands of Indianapolis WR Hank Baskett and was recovered by New Orleans safety Chris Reis. Starting at their own 42, the Saints made the most of the gamble and scored in six plays. Five of those plays were completions by Brees, including a 16-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Thomas (pictured below) that put New Orleans ahead, 13-10.

The Colts came right back, however, again going into a no-huddle offense and driving 76 yards in ten plays, converting a fourth-and-two situation along the way. Manning completed five passes, the longest of 27 yards to Clark, and Addai ran the final four yards for a TD that put Indianapolis back in front at 17-13.

The Saints responded with another scoring drive, with Hartley connecting for his third field goal, this time from 47 yards out. The third quarter ended with the Colts in front by a point.

Indianapolis again drove into New Orleans territory to begin the fourth quarter, but after reaching the 33 yard line, Stover missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. The Saints moved methodically down the field, with Brees hitting on seven consecutive short passes that included a two-yard touchdown to TE Jeremy Shockey. An attempted two-point conversion failed, but New Orleans was once more in front at 24-17 with just under six minutes left to play.

Starting at their own 30, the Colts again went into a no-huddle offense and Manning was successful on four of six passes to get to the New Orleans 31. But in a third-and-five situation, Manning threw a pass intended for Wayne that was instead intercepted by CB Tracy Porter, who returned it 74 yards for a touchdown (pictured below). The game was effectively over.

The Colts drove to the New Orleans five, but a fourth-and-goal pass was incomplete with 34 seconds left. The Saints, for so long a NFL doormat, were champions by a score of 31-17.

Indianapolis held the edge in total yards (432 to 332) and first downs (23 to 20). However, they suffered the only turnover of the game on the interception, and it was a huge one.

The game’s MVP, Drew Brees, completed 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two TDs. Marques Colston caught 7 passes for 83 yards and Devery Henderson also had 7 receptions, for 63 yards. Pierre Thomas, who led a rushing attack that accumulated just 51 yards, gained 30 yards in nine carries and also pulled in 6 passes for 51 yards and a TD.

For the Colts, Peyton Manning went to the air 45 times with 31 completions for 333 yards that included a TD and the interception. Dallas Clark caught 7 passes for 86 yards and Joseph Addai added 7 receptions for 58 yards in addition to pacing the running attack with 77 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts.

“Four years ago, who ever thought this would be happening when 85 percent of the city was under water?” said Drew Brees afterward. “Most people left not knowing if New Orleans would ever come back, or if the organization would ever come back. We just all looked at one another and said, ‘We are going to rebuild together. We are going to lean on each other.’ This is the culmination in all that belief.”

It was a great moment for the franchise and its fans, and for the quarterback who had signed with New Orleans as a free agent in the wake of the dreadful ’05 season.

While both clubs struggled at times in 2010, they returned to the postseason. However, they both were eliminated early, losing in the Wild Card playoff round.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Past Venue: Memorial Stadium

Baltimore, MD

Year opened: 1950
Capacity: 60,240, up from 31,000 at opening

Memorial Stadium, 1950-2001

Pro football tenants:
Baltimore Colts (NFL), 1950 (original)
Baltimore Colts (NFL), 1953-83 (second franchise)
Baltimore CFLers/Stallions (CFL), 1994-95
Baltimore Ravens (NFL), 1996-97

Postseason games hosted:
NFL Championship, Colts 31 Giants 16, Dec. 27, 1959
NFL Western Conf. Championship, Colts 24 Vikings 14, Dec. 22, 1968
AFC Divisional playoff, Colts 17 Bengals 0, Dec. 26, 1970
AFC Championship, Colts 27 Raiders 17, Jan. 3, 1971
AFC Divisional playoff, Steelers 40 Colts 14, Dec. 19, 1976
AFC Divisional playoff, Raiders 37 Colts 31, Dec. 24, 1977
CFL East Division semifinal, CFLers 34 Argonauts 15, Nov. 12, 1994
CFL South Division semifinal, Stallions 36 Blue Bombers 21, Nov. 4, 1995
CFL South Division final, Stallions 21 Texans 11, Nov. 12, 1995

Other tenants of note:
Baltimore Orioles (minor league baseball), 1950-53
Baltimore Orioles (MLB – AL), 1954-91
Baltimore Bays (NASL), 1967-68
Bowie Baysox (minor league baseball), 1993

Notes: Replaced Municipal/Babe Ruth Stadium, which stood at same location, was demolished and rebuilt into Memorial Stadium. The stadium was occasionally used for University of Maryland football games against major opponents. Also hosted two annual Thanksgiving Day high school football games – Baltimore City College vs. Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (“City vs. Poly”, 1954-99) and Calvert Hall College vs. Loyola Blakefield (1957-99). A small plane crashed into the upper deck following the Dec. 19, 1976 AFC Divisional playoff, but fortunately that area of the stadium had already cleared and there were few injuries.

The large Memorial Wall on the outside of the stadium was inscribed “Dedicated as a memorial to all who so valiantly fought in the world wars with eternal gratitude to those who made the supreme sacrifice to preserve equality and freedom throughout the world - time will not dim the glory of their deeds”.

Fate: Demolished in 2001, the site is now occupied by a YMCA facility and two apartment complexes. Concrete from the stadium was used to create an artificial reef in Chesapeake Bay.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

List of the Day: Progression of Individual Season All-Purpose Yardage Record

Derrick Mason

NOTE: Information not available for the first three AFLs (1926, 1936-37, 1940-41), WFL (1974-75), and XFL (2001)

Key: rush = rushing, rec = pass receiving, int = interception returns, pr = punt returns, kr = kickoff returns, other = other or unknown, * = led league in category

709- Cliff Battles, Boston Braves, 1932
(576 rush*, 60 rec, 73 other)

922- Cliff Battles, Boston Redskins, 1933
(737 rush, 185 rec)

1181- Beattie Feathers, Chicago Bears, 1934
(1004 rush*, 174 rec, 3 other)

1236- Marshall Goldberg, Chicago Cardinals, 1941
(427 rush, 313 rec, 152 pr, 290 kr*, 54 int)

1349- Bill Dudley, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1942
(696 rush*, 24 rec, 271 pr*, 298 kr, 60 int)

1607- Harry Clarke, Chicago Bears, 1943
(556 rush, 535 rec, 158 pr, 326 kr, 32 int)

1620- Bill Dudley, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1946
(604 rush*, 109 rec, 385 pr*, 280 kr, 242 int*)

1846- Eddie Saenz, Washington Redskins, 1947
(143 rush, 598 rec, 308 pr, 797 kr*)

1896- Billy Grimes, Green Bay Packers, 1950
(480 rush, 261 rec, 555 pr*, 600 kr)

2306- Timmy Brown, Philadelphia Eagles, 1962
(545 rush, 849 rec, 81 pr, 831 kr)

2428- Timmy Brown, Philadelphia Eagles, 1963
(841 rush, 487 rec, 152 pr, 945 kr*, 3 other)

2440- Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears, 1966
(1231 rush*, 447 rec, 44 pr, 718 kr)

2444- Mack Herron, New England Patriots, 1974
(824 rush, 474 rec, 517 pr, 629 kr)

2462- Terry Metcalf, St. Louis Cardinals, 1975
(816 rush, 378 rec, 285 pr, 960 kr, 23 other)

2535- Lionel James, San Diego Chargers, 1985
(516 rush, 1027 rec, 213 pr, 779 kr)

2690- Derrick Mason, Tennessee Titans, 2000
(1 rush, 895 rec, 662 pr*, 1132 kr)

Cliff Battles

Timmy Brown

Mack Herron

AAFC (1946-49)
1691- Spec Sanders, New York Yankees, 1946
(709 rush*, 259 rec, 257 pr, 395 kr, 71 int)

2265- Spec Sanders, New York Yankees, 1947
(1432 rush*, 13 rec, 164 pr, 593 kr, 63 int)

2288- Chet Mutryn, Buffalo Bills, 1948
(823 rush, 794 rec, 171 pr, 500 kr)

AFL (1960-69)
2100- Abner Haynes, Dallas Texans, 1960
(875 rush*, 576 rec, 215 pr*, 434 kr)

2147- Dick Christy, New York Titans, 1962
(535 rush, 538 rec, 250 pr*, 824 kr*)

Dick Christy

USFL (1983-85)
2370- Herschel Walker, New Jersey Generals, 1983
(1812 rush*, 489 rec, 69 kr)

2878- Herschel Walker, New Jersey Generals, 1985
(2411 rush*, 467 rec)

"Bullet Bill" Dudley

Herschel Walker