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

Friday, February 4, 2011

1969: John Madden Becomes Head Coach of Raiders

On February 4, 1969 the Oakland Raiders elevated John Madden, an assistant coach in charge of linebackers, to head coach. At 32 (he would turn 33 prior to the ’69 season), Madden, hardly the household name that he would later become, was the youngest head coach in either the AFL or NFL.

Madden succeeded John Rauch, who had compiled a 35-10-1 record over three seasons (including the playoffs) that included an AFL Championship in 1967. However, Rauch had clashed with Al Davis, the managing general partner, and resigned to take over as head coach in Buffalo (signed to a four-year contract, he lasted just two seasons as the Bills went 7-20-1). Davis had originally come to the Raiders as head coach (as well as general manager) and had served in that capacity for three seasons prior to a short stint as commissioner of the AFL, but made clear upon Rauch’s departure that he would not serve again in that capacity.

Davis chose to stay within the organization and elevated Madden instead of offensive line coach Ollie Spencer. The burly young coach had played tackle in college at California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo and received all-conference honors. Drafted in the 21st round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958, a preseason knee injury brought a quick end to his pro career – although he did receive mentoring from Hall of Fame QB (and future pro head coach) Norm Van Brocklin. From there he went into college coaching and advanced through the ranks, with four years at Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, California (two as head coach) and two years as defensive coach at San Diego State (on the staff of another future NFL head coach and mentor, Don Coryell). He joined the Raiders coaching staff under Rauch in 1967.

It was anticipated that going with a new coach who was already associated with the team would maintain stability, and with the club’s recent success, significant change was hardly in order. The Raiders had won the AFL Western Division for the second straight year in 1968 with a 12-2 record, defeating the Chiefs to break a tie at the top of the standings but then losing the league title game to the Jets.

There was no letdown under the new coach in 1969 as Oakland once again topped the division at 12-1-1. The offense was explosive, and QB Daryle Lamonica (pictured with Madden below) had an MVP season (UPI) as he led the AFL in its last pre-merger season in passing yards (3302), TD passes (34), pass attempts (426), and completions (221) – although also in interceptions, with 25. Deep-threat WR Warren Wells caught 47 passes for a league-leading 1260 yards and 14 touchdowns, while possession WR Fred Biletnikoff ranked second in pass receptions (54) and gained 837 yards while adding another 12 TDs.

Speedy HB Charlie Smith led the club with 600 yards rushing and also caught 30 passes and FB Hewritt Dixon, hindered by injuries but effective when healthy, added 398 yards on the ground and 33 receptions. The offensive line featured All-AFL performers in C Jim Otto, G Gene Upshaw, and OT Harry Schuh.

The defense was known for its aggressiveness and featured ends Ike Lassiter and Ben Davidson and tackles Carleton Oats and Tom Keating on the line. Gus Otto was an AFL All-Star for his play at right outside linebacker, while Dan Connors held down the middle. The backfield was outstanding and included cornerbacks Willie Brown and Nemiah Wilson plus FS Dave Grayson and SS George Atkinson. Oakland’s opponents completed just 38.9 percent of their passes. In addition, 42-year-old backup QB George Blanda was still one of the game’s most reliable placekickers and Mike Eischeid a good punter.

However, the ’69 season ended in disappointment. For the league’s last year, instead of the two division champions vying directly for the title, an extra layer was added to the postseason, with each first place team facing the second place finisher in the other division. The Raiders had no trouble disposing of the Houston Oilers, who finished second in the Eastern Division with a 6-6-2 record, bombarding them by a score of 56-7. The Jets, top finishers in the East and seeking a second consecutive title, lost to the Western Division’s second place team, the Chiefs, by a 13-6 tally. Oakland had beaten Kansas City in both meetings during the regular season, but in the final AFL Championship game, it was the Chiefs prevailing, 17-7, and then going on to defeat the champions of the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings, in the Super Bowl.

Success during the regular season followed by disappointment in the playoffs became a near-annual event, and the Raiders developed a reputation as a good team that couldn’t win the big games. In 1970, they won the division and advanced to the first AFC Championship game, but lost to the Colts. After going 8-4-2 and missing the postseason in ’71, the Raiders were back atop the AFC West at 10-3-1 in 1972 but lost in gut-wrenching fashion to the Steelers in the Divisional round as a result of the “Immaculate Reception” touchdown by RB Franco Harris. They were back in the conference title game in ’73 but lost to Miami. In 1974 and ’75 they also made it to the AFC Championship game, and lost to the Steelers both times.

Finally, Oakland went the distance in 1976, going 13-1 during the regular season and handily beating Pittsburgh for the conference title. In the Super Bowl, the Raiders defeated Minnesota in convincing fashion to finally achieve the elusive NFL Championship.

Madden coached for two more years but stepped down after the 1978 season. An animated and excitable coach, he had developed stomach ulcers and chose to leave the profession at age 42. He would, of course, transition into a long and prominent career broadcasting pro football games. He would also achieve recognition for his coaching achievements, gaining induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

Madden’s coaching record was 103-32-7 in the regular season, for a gaudy .763 winning percentage (the highest in league history for a head coach with at least ten seasons), and his teams went 9-7 in the postseason, including the one NFL title.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

2002: Patriots Stun Rams to Win Super Bowl XXXVI

Super Bowl XXXVI on February 3, 2002 looked to be a blowout in the making. The St. Louis Rams, with a 14-2 record and seeking to win two titles in three years, were up against the 11-5 New England Patriots, who had come from nowhere and were not considered to be of the same caliber.

The Rams, under Head Coach Mike Martz, entered the 2001 season expecting to contend for a title. They boasted the NFL’s most explosive offense, led by QB Kurt Warner, the league leader in passing (101.4 rating), passing yards (4830), touchdowns (36), completions (375), yards per attempt (8.8), and completion percentage (68.7) as well as league MVP choice of the Associated Press and NEA. Wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were both Pro Bowl performers. RB Marshall Faulk, who ran for 1382 yards and gained another 765 on 83 catches, garnered the other MVP trophies (Pro Football Writers Association and Bert Bell Award). The unheralded defense benefited from the addition of 33-year-old CB Aeneas Williams. Having won the NFC West with the league’s best record, St. Louis routed the Packers in the Divisional playoff and then got past the Eagles to win the conference title.

In 2000, the first year under Head Coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots finished at the bottom of the AFC East with a 5-11 tally, and not much more was anticipated in ’01. It certainly didn’t appear that the team was anything special when it fell to 5-5 following a loss to the Rams in November. But from that point, New England didn’t lose again, winning the last six regular season games. They barely defeated the Raiders in a snowy Divisional round contest and got past Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. Coaching, starting with Belichick, certainly played a role, as did the coming together of a defense that didn’t allow more than 17 points in any of those eight wins. But the emergence of QB Tom Brady (pictured above), who took over for injured veteran QB Drew Bledsoe in September, paid huge dividends as he displayed outstanding game-management skills and great ability in clutch situations. Still, the Patriots came into the Super Bowl as two-touchdown underdogs.

There was a crowd of 72,922 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans and the Patriots broke with tradition by eschewing the usual player introductions to be introduced en masse as a team, emphasizing the club’s cohesiveness. The clubs traded punts to start off the game. On their second possession, the Rams drove 48 yards in ten plays with Warner completing six of seven passes. Jeff Wilkins kicked a 50-yard field goal to give St. Louis the early lead.

After the Patriots went three-and-out, the Rams again drove into New England territory, the highlight being a 29-yard pass completion from Warner to WR Az-Zahir Hakim on the second play of the second quarter. But after penetrating to the 34 yard line, Wilkins was wide to the left on a 52-yard field goal attempt.

New England held onto the ball for seven plays but again had to punt. However, on the third play of the next St. Louis possession, CB Ty Law intercepted a Warner pass that was intended for Bruce and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown (pictured at right). In stunning fashion, the Patriots were in front at 7-3.

With under two minutes remaining in the first half, Warner threw to WR Ricky Proehl for a 15-yard gain to the New England 40, but safety Antwan Harris forced a fumble and CB Terrell Buckley recovered for the Patriots. Brady hit on passes to WR Troy Brown for 16 yards and eight yards to TE Jermaine Wiggins to get to the St. Louis 24. Following an eight-yard carry by RB Kevin Faulk, Brady threw to WR David Patten for an eight-yard TD and the Patriots went into halftime with an improbable 14-3 lead.

Coach Belichick had learned from the loss to St. Louis during the regular season, when he had tried to key on blitzing Warner. This time, he sought to keep Marshall Faulk in check and loaded up with as many as six or seven defensive backs on each play. The strategy was having the desired effect, as Warner’s rhythm was disrupted and the fleet wide receivers were kept in check.

The teams went back to trading punts in the third quarter, battling for field position. Late in the period, after the Rams had advanced to the New England 45, Warner was intercepted again, this time by CB Otis Smith, who returned the pickoff 30 yards to the St. Louis 33. Five plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 37-yard field goal to make the score 17-3.

With the game moving into the fourth quarter, the Rams began to come alive as Warner hit on short passes, completing six in a row to reach the New England three. Following two incompletions and facing a fourth-and-three situation, Warner ran and fumbled when hit by LB Roman Phifer. Patriots FS Tebucky Jones picked up the ball and took off for an apparent 97-yard touchdown, but the play was nullified by a defensive holding penalty on DE Willie McGinest. Gaining a huge reprieve, Warner ran for a two-yard touchdown shortly thereafter and New England’s margin was cut to 17-10.

The teams again traded punts, and the Patriots had consecutive three-and-out possessions. After the second one, and with under two minutes remaining, the Rams took over at their 45 yard line. Warner threw to Hakim for 18 yards, WR Yo Murphy for 11, and then the slow-but-steady Proehl for a 26-yard touchdown. With the extra point, the game was tied at 17-17 and it appeared likely that the contest would go into overtime.

New England’s offense took over at its own 17 with 1:21 now on the clock and no timeouts remaining. Brady threw two passes to RB J.R. Redmond that covered 13 yards. After an incompletion, he went to Redmond again for another 11 yards to his own 41. A 23-yard pass to Brown took the ball into Rams territory at the 36 and a throw to Wiggins added another six yards. With seven seconds now remaining, Brady spiked the ball to stop the clock and Vinatieri, who was rapidly becoming recognized as an outstanding clutch kicker, booted a game-winning 48-yard field goal (pictured below). In an amazing upset, the Patriots won their first championship by a score of 20-17.

The Rams won the statistical battle, outdistancing New England in total yards (427 to 267), first downs (26 to 15), and time of possession (33:30 to 26:30). But the Patriots didn’t turn the ball over, while taking advantage of three St. Louis turnovers to score 17 points.

Tom Brady was the game’s MVP as he completed 16 of 27 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown and showed great poise in directing the game-winning drive. Troy Brown (pictured below) led New England’s receivers with 6 catches for 89 yards. RB Antowain Smith rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries.

The strategy of keying on Marshall Faulk held the Rams’ running game to 90 yards, with Faulk gaining 76 of that total on 17 attempts and catching four passes for 54 yards – ordinary by his standards. Kurt Warner was successful on 28 of 44 passes for 365 yards, but with just one TD against two interceptions. Az-Zahir Hakim, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt all caught five passes apiece, with Hakim gaining the most yards (90; Bruce and Holt gained 56 and 49 yards, respectively).

“When Adam hit it, it was so true,” said Bill Belichick of Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal. “It was so high and so far. If you want a guy to make a play at the end of the game, he's the one.”

Of the Rams, Ty Law said, “I don't think they looked past us, but at the same time, I don't think they were expecting this type of fight.”

“I don't think we were overconfident,” a disappointed Kurt Warner stated from the St. Louis perspective. “We played hard, but those few turnovers, those few mistakes we made, they turned them into points. Some days they don't turn into anything, but they turned them into 17 points and a world championship. That's what's so hard about this loss. It was the fact our mistakes did us in today.”

The championship for the Patriots proved to not be a fluke as the club won two more over the next three years and consistently contended beyond that. St. Louis, in the meantime, moved in the opposite direction. Warner suffered through two injury-marred seasons in 2002-03 and was let go – he would eventually revive his career in Arizona. The team dropped to 7-9 in ’02, and after rebounding to 12-4 in 2003, fell into mediocrity thereafter.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Past Venue: Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium

Atlanta, GA
aka Atlanta Stadium

Year opened: 1965
Capacity: 60,700

Atlanta Stadium, 1965-75
Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, 1976-97

Pro football tenants:
Atlanta Falcons (NFL), 1966-91

Postseason games hosted:
NFC Wild Card playoff, Falcons 14 Eagles 13, Dec. 24, 1978
NFC Divisional playoff, Cowboys 30 Falcons 27, Jan. 4, 1981

Other tenants of note:
Atlanta Crackers (minor league baseball), 1965
Atlanta Braves (MLB – NL), 1966-96
Atlanta Chiefs (NASL), 1967-69, 71-72, 79-81

Notes: Hosted annual Peach Bowl, 1971-91. Used as baseball venue for 1996 Summer Olympics. First pro football game was a preseason contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings on Aug. 14, 1965.

Fate: Demolished in 1997, the site is now used as a parking lot for Turner Field.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

2009: Steelers Come Back to Defeat Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII

That the Pittsburgh Steelers were representing the AFC in Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 was of little surprise. That their NFC opponent was the Arizona Cardinals came as a shock to many pro football fans. The club had not appeared in a league title game since 1948 and hardly seemed likely to do so in 2008.

The Cardinals, coached by Ken Whisenhunt, had won the AFC West in ‘08, but with a lackluster 9-7 record. Moreover, after taking command of the division at 7-3 midway through November, the team went 2-4 the rest of the way and looked especially bad when blown out at Philadelphia and New England. But in the postseason, where it was greatly anticipated that they would be eliminated quickly, they defeated Atlanta at home in the Wild Card round, dominated the 12-4 Carolina Panthers at Charlotte, and then returned to University of Phoenix Stadium and held off the Eagles to win the NFC title.

37-year-old QB Kurt Warner revived his career in Arizona and had the outstanding wide receiver corps of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston to throw to. The defense ranked 28th in the league in points surrendered during the regular season, but stepped up in the playoffs. DT Darnell Dockett, linebackers Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes, FS Antrel Rolle, and Pro Bowl SS Adrian Wilson were the featured players on the unit.

The Steelers, under Head Coach Mike Tomlin, were far more formidable in winning the AFC North at 12-4. They beat the Chargers in the Divisional playoff round and then won a hard-hitting battle with division-rival Baltimore for the AFC Championship. QB Ben Roethlisberger’s statistics dropped in 2008, primarily as a result of suffering a shoulder separation in the season-opening game, but he still was able to lift the offense in clutch situations – he guided the Steelers to six game-winning drives during the regular season, either in the fourth quarter or in overtime. The running game was hindered by injuries to veteran RB Willie Parker and rookie Rashard Mendenhall. But WR Santonio Holmes had come on strong late in the regular season and playoffs. The defense was outstanding and included NT Casey Hampton, SS Troy Polamalu, and an excellent group of linebackers led by the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison.

There were 70,774 fans in attendance at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for what was expected to be a classic mismatch. Pittsburgh got the ball first and drove 72 yards in nine plays. Roethlisberger completed passes of 38 yards to WR Hines Ward and 21 yards to TE Heath Miller along the way. The big quarterback (6’5”, 240 pounds) attempted to cap the drive himself by running the final yard on a third-and-goal play, and it initially appeared that he had been successful when a TD was signaled. However, the Cardinals successfully challenged the play and the Steelers settled for an 18-yard Jeff Reed field goal instead.

Arizona punted following its first possession of the game and once again the Steelers put together a long drive that started off with a 25-yard pass completion from Roethlisberger to Holmes. Pittsburgh went 69 yards in 11 plays and, on the second play of the second quarter, scored a touchdown on a one-yard carry by RB Gary Russell to take a 10-0 lead.

The Cardinals came back as Warner completed five short passes and then threw long to Boldin for a 45-yard gain down to the Pittsburgh one yard line. Warner tossed a pass to TE Ben Patrick for the final yard and a TD to again make it a three-point game.

The teams traded punts, until a tipped pass by Roethlisberger was intercepted by Dansby to give Arizona the ball at the Pittsburgh 34 with two minutes remaining in the half. Again Warner completed short passes to move the Cardinals along, and they once more faced a first-and-goal situation at the one yard line. But Warner’s pass that was intended for Boldin was instead intercepted by Harrison at the goal line, who proceeded to return it 100 yards for a touchdown (pictured below), just barely falling across the goal line at the end with no time remaining. The longest (and arguably most thrilling) play in Super Bowl history made the score 17-7 as the teams went into halftime.

Following a punt by the Cardinals, Pittsburgh put together yet another long drive in its first possession of the second half. Moving from their 18 yard line (the Steelers had nearly gotten the ball in Arizona territory upon recovering what was initially ruled a fumble by Warner, but the play was overturned upon challenge), they reached the Cardinals’ nine yard line and kicked a field goal. However, an unnecessary roughness penalty on Adrian Wilson gave Pittsburgh a first down at the Arizona four instead. Parker ran for two yards, but then Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass and was dropped for the loss of a yard on third down. They ended up settling for a 21-yard field goal by Reed.

The game entered the fourth quarter with the Steelers ahead by 20-7, and the clubs traded punts as time appeared to be running out for the Cardinals. Arizona had not been able to move the ball effectively thus far, and Larry Fitzgerald had been particularly quiet, but that all changed as the Cardinals went into a no-huddle offense and put together a scoring drive. Warner passed on every down and was successful on all eight of his throws, including four to Fitzgerald. A one-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Fitzgerald brought the Cardinals to within six points of the Steelers.

Pittsburgh went three-and-out on the following possession, with the key play being Darnell Dockett’s sack of Roethlisberger for an eight-yard loss. The Cardinals had to punt as well, but pinned the Steelers back at their one yard line. On a third-and-ten play, it appeared that Roethlisberger had completed a 19-yard pass to Holmes to get out of trouble, but a holding penalty in the end zone not only nullified the first down but gave Arizona two more points on a safety.

The Cardinals received the ensuing free kick and, after an incompletion on the first play, Warner fired a short pass to Fitzgerald that resulted in a 64-yard touchdown (pictured at right). With the extra point, Arizona was in the lead at 23-20 and there were just under three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. They had scored 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, and seemed on the verge of a stunning upset.

Following the kickoff, Pittsburgh took over at its 22 yard line. A holding penalty backed the Steelers up to the 12, but Roethlisberger hit Holmes twice with passes covering 14 and 13 yards, and an 11-yard completion to WR Nate Washington got them to midfield. After a four-yard run by Roethlisberger, he again threw to Holmes on a play that covered 40 yards to the Arizona six. On second-and-goal, Roethlisberger went to Holmes once more, throwing high into the end zone at the right corner. Holmes stretched just high enough to catch the ball, kept his toes barely in bounds, and scored the six-yard touchdown that put the Steelers back in front (pictured at top).

The Cardinals had one last chance, taking over with 35 seconds on the clock. Warner threw to Fitzgerald for 20 yards and RB J.J. Arrington for 13, but with the ball now at the Pittsburgh 44, Warner fumbled while being sacked by LB LaMarr Woodley and DE Brett Keisel recovered for the Steelers to end the threat. The Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl by a score of 27-23.

The Cardinals significantly outgained Pittsburgh (407 yards to 292) and had the edge in first downs (23 to 20). The also suffered 11 penalties, at the expense of 106 yards, to 7 flags thrown on the Steelers and gave up two turnovers to Pittsburgh’s one. Neither team mounted much of a running attack, with the Steelers gaining just 58 yard on 26 carries while Arizona ran the ball 12 times for 33 yards.

Ben Roethlisberger completed 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards, including a touchdown and an interception, and was at his best in the game-winning drive. Santonio Holmes, the game’s MVP, caught 9 passes for 131 yards and the TD. Willie Parker was the leading rusher with 53 yards on 19 carries.

For the Cardinals, Kurt Warner (pictured below) went to the air 43 times and completed 31 of those passes for 377 yards, three for touchdowns while one was picked off. Anquan Boldin caught 8 passes for 84 yards and Larry Fitzgerald gained 127 yards on 7 receptions that included two TDs, while Steve Breaston contributed 6 catches for 71 yards. RB Edgerrin James accounted for all 33 rushing yards on 9 attempts.

“Was that a 60-minute game, or what?” exclaimed Steelers LB James Farrior. “It came down to the last play, and we made it.”

The sixth Super Bowl victory for the Pittsburgh franchise pulled it ahead of Dallas and San Francisco, although the Steelers were still short of Green Bay’s total of 12 league titles.

The Steelers slumped to 9-7 in 2009 and missed the playoffs. Kurt Warner came back for one last season in ’09 and led the Cardinals to another NFC West title, but after winning a high-scoring thriller in the Wild Card round of the postseason, they were thrashed by New Orleans in the Divisional round.