Saturday, December 18, 2010
The move from Chicago to St. Louis following the 1959 NFL season seemed to reinvigorate the Cardinals franchise. Not only did they have an enthusiastic new fan base, but the quality of play improved as well. Coming into the season finale on December 18, 1960 against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals were 5-5-1 and had a chance to post their first winning record since 1956.
While second-year split end Sonny Randle was having a breakout season, St. Louis was at its best running the ball (they led the league in that category). Head Coach Frank “Pop” Ivy favored a ground game that featured multiple sets and his best and most versatile runner was HB John David Crow.
Crow, in his third year, had come out of Texas A & M, where he was coached by the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant and won the Heisman Trophy in 1957 (Bryant’s only Heisman winner). At 6’2”, 215 pounds, he was versatile as a runner with speed and power, as a receiver out of the backfield, and as a passer on option plays. He had been selected to the Pro Bowl in ’59 after gaining 666 yards rushing, plus another 328 on 28 catches, and was better in 1960 - going into the game against the Steelers he needed 57 yards to break Ollie Matson’s single-season team rushing record of 924 yards, set in that last winning season of 1956.
There were 20,840 fans present on a cold but sunny day. The Steelers, coached by Buddy Parker, were also 5-5-1 but, unlike the situation with the Cardinals, Pittsburgh appeared to be moving in the wrong direction. In 1958, Parker’s second season, in which Bobby Layne was obtained from the Lions early in the year to take over the quarterback duties, the club went 7-4-1. In ’59 they had been 6-5-1. But Layne was one of several players suffering through an injury-plagued campaign. After a 2-5-1 start, the Steelers had won their last three games.
The game started slowly, with neither team able to generate much offense due to fumbles and penalties. The battered Layne sat out the first 22 minutes as the strong-armed Rudy Bukich started (and eventually finished) at quarterback for the Steelers.
St. Louis finally scored in the last minute of the first half after recovering a fumble at the Pittsburgh 15. FB Frank Mestnik ran for a one-yard touchdown. However, Pittsburgh came right back to tie the score with just three seconds left in the second quarter on a 49-yard pass play from Layne to flanker Jimmy Orr.
On the first possession of the third quarter, Cardinals QB John Roach threw to Randle for a 57-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 20 that set up a 16-yard field goal by Gerry Perry. However, before the period was over, Roach threw two touchdown passes to Randle, of 14 and 8 yards, to effectively put the game out of reach.
Crow passed Matson’s franchise rushing record with a 57-yard run in the fourth quarter, part of a 98-yard drive by the Cardinals following a pass interception deep in their own territory. Roach scored from a yard out to make it 31-7.
A fumble recovery set up a last, late touchdown by St. Louis as Randle caught a 33-yard pass from Roach for his third score of the day that provided the final score of 38-7.
The season-ending win, of course, allowed St. Louis to finish over .500 with a 6-5-1 record that placed fourth in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh’s 5-6-1 tally ranked fifth.
The Cardinals gained 379 total yards to 180 for Pittsburgh, and also had a significant edge in first downs, 21 to 9. The Steelers ran the ball poorly, gaining just 30 net yards and one first down on 22 carries. They also turned the ball over four times, to just one suffered by St. Louis.
The Cardinals gained 271 yards rushing, with John David Crow not only setting a new single-season franchise record with 1071, but establishing a single-game mark with 203 yards on 24 attempts. He also caught two passes for 30 yards and completed an option pass for nine more.
Sonny Randle also had a big day, catching 5 passes for 115 yards and three touchdowns. John Roach completed 7 of 21 passes for 145 yards with three of them good for TDs and none intercepted.
Bobby Layne, who came on for Bukich but was injured in the fourth quarter, completed 4 of 8 passes for 92 yards and the lone TD; Rudy Bukich was successful on 6 of 12 passes for 81 yards and gave up two interceptions. Jimmy Orr led the receivers with 4 catches for 78 yards and a touchdown. HB Tom Tracy led the anemic running game with 33 yards on 13 carries.
“The boys really gave me some wonderful blocking - all of 'em,” Crow said afterward. “You have to have it for 203 yards in this league.”
Coach Ivy said Crow “can go inside or outside with as much power and speed combined as any back I've ever seen. What's more, he can receive passes well and throw that running halfback pass well.”
Sonny Randle (pictured at left) also set Cardinals club records with 62 catches and 15 touchdowns for the year. John Roach’s three TD passes gave him a total of 17, tying the franchise’s single-season high. But it was the big halfback who drew most of the attention.
For the year, in addition to the 1071 yards on 183 carries with six touchdowns, Crow also was the team’s second-leading pass receiver with 25 receptions for 462 yards and another three scores. He threw the ball often, completing 9 of 18 passes for 247 yards with two TDs against one interception. However, while Crow led the NFL with his 5.9 yards-per-carry and 1533 yards from scrimmage, he also led the league with 11 fumbles.
In summing up his regard for Crow, Frank Ivy said, “I believe he is at least the equal of Jimmy Brown (Cleveland's great runner who again led the NFL in rushing), although Brown has the advantage of a little better offensive line.”
At the time, the comparison to Jim Brown was not as outrageous as it would seem in retrospect. Unfortunately, after the outstanding effort in 1960 injuries, starting with a broken leg during the 1961 preseason, cut significantly into Crow’s playing time. He ran the ball only 48 times in ’61 and had nine attempts in 1963.
While there were other productive seasons, Crow was not able to consistently maintain the high level of performance that had made him one of pro football’s premier backs in 1960. His fumbling also became more of an issue, particularly in 1962 when he scored a career-high 17 touchdowns but again led the NFL in fumbles with 14.
The rushing numbers added up to 4963 yards on 1157 carries (4.3 avg.) with 38 touchdowns and the pass receiving totals were 258 catches for 3699 yards and another 35 TDs. Overall he scored 74 touchdowns, including one on a fumble recovery, certainly a respectable number considering the time lost to injuries.
Crow’s versatility was apparent to the end – dealt to the 49ers in 1965, where he continued to play halfback, he was switched to tight end in his final season of 1968, catching 31 passes for 531 yards and five touchdowns. He also threw an amazing 70 option passes over the course of his career, completing 33 for 759 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
Crow was selected to four Pro Bowls – with the Cardinals in 1959, ’60, and ’62 and the 49ers in 1965.