September 30, 2011

MVP Profile: Bill Dudley, 1946

Tailback/Defensive Back, Pittsburgh Steelers


Age: 26
3rd season in pro football & with Steelers
College: Virginia
Height: 5’10” Weight: 172

Prelude:
Despite questions about his size, Dudley was drafted in the first round by the Steelers in 1942, ran for a 55-yard TD in his first pro game, and went on to lead the NFL in rushing as a rookie with 696 yards. He also led the league in punt return yardage (271) and kickoff return average (27.1) and accumulated a league-leading 1349 all-purpose yards. Despite his nickname, Bullet Bill was not particularly fast, but had outstanding instincts. Playing halfback and tailback in a single-wing offense, he was also not a particularly adept passer, but his all-around skills made Dudley a star and he was an outstanding ball hawk in the defensive backfield. Due to World War II, Dudley missed the 1943 and ’44 seasons completely, but returned for the last four games of 1945.

1946 Season Summary
Appeared in all 11 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Rushing
Attempts – 146 [1]
Yards – 604 [1]
Yards per attempt – 4.1 [7]
TDs – 2

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 4
Yards – 109
Yards per catch – 27.3
TDs - 1

Passing
Attempts – 90 [10]
Completions – 32 [10]
Yards – 452 [10]
Completion percentage – 35.6
Yards per attempt – 5.0
TD passes – 2 [12, tied with five others]
Most TD passes, game – 1 vs. Chicago Cardinals 9/20, vs. NY Giants 10/6
Interceptions – 9 [8, tied with Tommy Thompson]
Passer rating – 20.5

Kicking
Field goals – 2 [9, tied with Roy Zimmerman]
Field goal attempts – 7 [8]
Percentage – 28.6
PATs – 12 [9, tied with Joe Stydahar]
PAT attempts – 14 [9]
Longest field goal – 34 yards vs. Boston Yanks 10/13

Punting
Punts – 60 [2, tied with Howard Maley]
Yards – 2409 [2]
Average – 40.2 [7]
Punts blocked – 1
Longest punt – 69 yards

Interceptions
Interceptions – 10 [1]
Return yards – 242 [1]
TDs – 1 [1, tied with six others]

Kickoff Returns
Returns – 14 [3]
Yards – 280 [6]
Average per return – 20.0 [7]
TDs – 0
Longest return – 34 yards

Punt Returns
Returns – 27 [1]
Yards – 385 [1]
Average per return – 14.3 [1]
TDs – 0
Longest return – 52 yards

All-Purpose yards – 1378 [1]

Scoring
TDs – 5 [8, tied with ten others]
Field goals – 2
PATs - 12
Points – 48 [5, tied with Hugh Gallarneau]

Also led NFL with 7 fumble recoveries

Awards & Honors:
NFL MVP: Joe F. Carr Trophy
1st team All-NFL/AAFC: Chicago Herald-American
1st team All-NFL: UPI, Pro Football Illustrated, NY Daily News
2nd team All-NFL: AP

Steelers went 5-5-1 to finish in a tie for third in the Eastern Division with the Washington Redskins.

Aftermath:
Despite his outstanding play, Dudley clashed with Pittsburgh Head Coach Jock Sutherland as well as teammates. Threatening retirement, he was traded to the Detroit Lions prior to the 1947 season, and while his rushing numbers dropped, he caught far more passes as a T-formation halfback and continued to be an outstanding kick returner and defensive player – he scored 11 TDs in four different ways in ’47 (2 rushing, 7 receiving, 1 punt return, 1 kickoff return). After three seasons with the Lions, he moved on to the Washington Redskins in 1950 and was chosen to the first two Pro Bowls following the ’50 and ’51 seasons. Continuing to be a versatile performer, he led the NFL in field goal percentage (76.9) in 1951. After missing the ’52 season, he played primarily as a placekicker in 1953, his last year. Overall, he rushed for 3057 yards, caught 123 passes for 1383 more, intercepted 23 passes, returned 124 punts for a 12.2 average and 78 kickoffs for a 22.3 average, punted 193 times with a 37.8 average, and kicked 33 field goals and 121 extra points. Dudley was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1966.

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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 2/14/14]

September 29, 2011

1950: Ratterman Passes Yanks to Win Over Lions


The NFL had a new look in 1950, following the merger with the All-America Football Conference that brought three new clubs into the league. There were now 13 teams and there was realignment as the Eastern and Western Divisions were renamed American and National Conferences, respectively. Two National Conference teams that had showed promise in the early going met on September 29 in New York.

The host New York Yanks were owned by Ted Collins, who had operated the unsuccessful Boston Yanks from 1944 to ’48 and then started a new franchise called the New York Bulldogs in 1949. The Bulldogs, sharing the Polo Grounds with the Giants, went a dismal 1-10-1, but had undergone a significant transformation for ’50. Collins purchased the assets of the AAFC’s New York Yankees, and while the Giants were given first choice on the team’s best players, it still meant a significant improvement in personnel. Only three players from the ’49 Bulldogs remained on the roster of the team that was now called the Yanks, having moved into Yankee Stadium. The club also got a new head coach in Red Strader, who had guided the AAFC club to an 8-4 record in 1949.

The visiting Detroit Lions were far better established in the NFL, but were also undergoing a transformation. Under Head Coach Bo McMillan, the team had a new quarterback, Bobby Layne, who played for the Bulldogs the previous year. HB Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer was added from the AAFC and the rookie crop included HB Doak Walker, end Leon Hart, and linemen Lou Creekmur and Thurman McGraw.

The Lions had won their first two games while the Yanks split their first two contests on the road.

There were 12,482 fans at the Polo Grounds on a Friday night, where the game was shifted in order to not disturb the Yankee Stadium turf for the forthcoming World Series. In the first quarter, QB George Ratterman (pictured above), another ex-AAFC star, threw to end Dan Edwards for a 45-yard gain that set up a 21-yard touchdown pass to HB George Taliaferro. However, the Lions evened the score when DHB Bob Smith returned an intercepted pass 35 yards for a TD.


In the second quarter, Ratterman twice connected with FB Sherman Howard for scores of 36 and 31 yards to give New York a 21-7 halftime lead. The Yanks poured it on in the third quarter as Layne was tackled in his end zone by DB Duke Iverson for a safety and then Ratterman tossed his fourth touchdown pass, of six yards to end Jack Russell. It was 30-7 entering the final period.

In the fourth quarter, Detroit finally got on the board again when Walker went in from a yard out and added the extra point. However, Howard promptly returned the ensuing kickoff 89 yards for a TD and the Yanks maintained a commanding lead of 37-14.

New York’s last touchdown was set up when DHB Spec Sanders, yet another former AAFC star, intercepted a Layne pass at the Detroit 24 and returned it to the five. Taliaferro went the rest of the way on a pitch-out. The Lions scored one last, meaningless TD as HB Lindy Pearson ran in from two yards out, and the final tally was a convincing 44-21 win for the Yanks.

New York outgained the Lions (359 yards to 267) and had the edge in first downs (16 to 14). Both teams turned the ball over three times and were penalized on five occasions.

George Ratterman completed 15 of 29 passes for 264 yards and four touchdowns, with three intercepted. For Detroit, Bobby Layne was successful on just 10 of 30 throws for 118 yards.

The Yanks continued to put points on the board and win games, peaking at 6-1 before losing four straight. They ended up at 7-5 and in third place in the National Conference. The Lions were right behind in fourth with a 6-6 record.

George Ratterman led the NFL with 22 touchdown passes, but also 24 interceptions (tied with Jim Hardy of the Cardinals and Green Bay’s Tobin Rote). He finished second in passing yards (2251) to Bobby Layne (2323).

Sherman Howard, the second-year back who scored three touchdowns, ended up with 9 TDs for the year. He ran for 362 yards on 71 attempts (5.1 avg.) and three touchdowns, caught 12 passes for 278 yards (23.2 avg.) and five TDs, and had the score on the kickoff return (the only kick return for a touchdown by any of the Yanks).

While the Yanks were the better team on this day, and ended up with the better record (although the Lions won handily in the rematch in Detroit), the fate of the two franchises sharply diverged. By 1952, the Lions were on their way to the NFL Championship, while the Yanks no longer existed. Ratterman and several other players jumped to the Canadian League, and the team suffered on the field accordingly in ‘51. While Ratterman eventually rejoined the club, the final record was a dismal 1-9-2. Never a good draw even when the team played well, Ted Collins pulled the plug on the Yanks and sold the franchise back to the league.

September 28, 2011

1947: Eagles Outlast Redskins in Record-Setting Opening Game


The NFL opening-week matchup on September 28, 1947 between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins featured two clubs heading in different directions. The visiting Redskins had regularly contended in the Eastern Division between 1936 and ’45, making it to the postseason six times and winning two NFL titles. However, under Head Coach Turk Edwards, a former star tackle, the team had gone 5-5-1 in 1946, the first non-winning record since 1935. Still, the Redskins had a formidable weapon in 33-year-old QB Sammy Baugh, the best passer in the league, assuring that they could put points on the board.

The host Eagles, on the other hand, had been perennial losers since coming into the NFL in 1933 (a year after the Redskins). They didn’t have a winning record until 1943, the year they combined with the Pittsburgh Steelers due to the wartime manpower shortage and restrictions on travel, but under Head Coach Earle “Greasy” Neale, the Eagles had been adding outstanding talent and improving steadily. Philadelphia finished second in the Eastern Division in each of the next three seasons, including a 6-5 record in 1946.

There were 35,406 fans at Municipal Stadium, and they saw the home team score first when Joe Muha kicked a 40-yard field goal three minutes into the contest. Later in the opening period, Eagles QB “One-Eyed” Tommy Thompson (pictured above) connected with rookie end Pete Pihos, a former college fullback, for a 19-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 10-0.


The Redskins got on the board early in the second quarter as Baugh (pictured at left) connected with HB Bob Nussbaumer on a 37-yard touchdown pass. Shortly thereafter, Baugh’s 1000th career completion was good for a 62-yard TD to rookie end Hugh Taylor and Washington was in front at 14-10.

However, the lead didn’t last long when Eagles star HB Steve Van Buren returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. With time winding down in the first half, backup QB Allie Sherman scored on a one-yard sneak that was set up by Van Buren’s running and passes from Thompson to Pihos. Philadelphia held a 24-14 lead at halftime.

The Redskins started the second half off with a bang as HB Eddie Saenz returned the kickoff for a 94-yard touchdown. The Eagles came right back with a 70-yard drive. Thompson threw to end Jack Ferrante for a 33-yard gain to the Washington six yard line and shortly thereafter Van Buren ran in for a one-yard TD. Philadelphia’s lead was again ten points at 31-21.

Thompson connected with Pihos for a 21-yard touchdown a few minutes later to extend the margin, but Baugh threw a pass to HB Dick Poillon that resulted in a 57-yard TD and the score was 38-28 after three quarters.

Thompson threw to end Neill Armstrong, another rookie, for Philadelphia’s last touchdown on a play that covered 29 yards. Washington didn’t give up, and Baugh tossed two scoring passes to Taylor in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t quite enough as the Eagles held on to win by a score of 45-42.

The combined 87 points set a new NFL record, as did the 12 combined touchdowns (previously 79 points & 11 TDs by the Packers and Cardinals in 1942; both records fell a year later).


Pete Pihos (pictured at right) had an impressive debut as he caught 5 passes for 89 yards and two TDs. Steve Van Buren ran for 98 yards and added the kickoff return for a touchdown.

Oddly enough, the field goal by Joe Muha that proved to be crucial to the result was the only successful three-point attempt of his career (he was one-for-five in ’47, one-for-16 over his five years in the NFL). A fullback, Muha was far more effective as a punter (he led the league with a 47.3 average in 1948).

For the Redskins, Sammy Baugh completed 21 of 34 passes for 364 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions. Hugh Taylor (pictured below) also had a noteworthy first game as he caught 8 passes for 212 yards and three TDs.


The Eagles went on to post an 8-4 record, tying for first with Pittsburgh atop the Eastern Division. They won the resulting playoff but lost the NFL Championship game to the Chicago Cardinals. Washington won its next two games but then lost five straight to fall out of contention. The Redskins ended up at 4-8 and in fourth place.

Tommy Thompson, who had limited vision in one eye, firmly established himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the league as he threw for 1680 yards and 16 touchdowns. He benefited from having Steve Van Buren in the backfield, who set a NFL single-season rushing record (1008 yards) and also led the league in touchdowns (14) and yards from scrimmage (1087). Pete Pihos set the tone for his Hall of Fame career by catching 23 passes for 382 yards and seven TDs.

Although the Redskins were mired in mediocrity, Sammy Baugh led the league in pass attempts (354), completions (210), yards (2938), TD passes (25), completion percentage (59.3), and had the lowest percentage of interceptions (4.2). Hugh Taylor, who had such a spectacular debut in a losing cause against the Eagles, caught 26 passes for 511 yards (19.7 avg.) and six touchdowns. Bob Nussbaumer ranked second in the NFL in pass receptions (47) and ninth in receiving yards (597).

September 27, 2011

MVP Profile: John Riggins, 1983

Running Back, Washington Redskins


Age: 34
12th season in pro football, 7th with Redskins
College: Kansas
Height: 6’2” Weight: 235

Prelude:
Following a college career in which Riggins set a school rushing record, he was chosen in the first round of the 1971 NFL draft by the New York Jets. As a rookie, he led the team in rushing (769 yards) and pass receiving (36). In five seasons with the Jets, the power runner who occasionally missed time due to injuries and contract holdouts gained 3880 yards and became the franchise’s first thousand-yard rusher with 1005 in 1975, his only Pro Bowl season. A punishing runner between the tackles, he also showed a decidedly eccentric and anti-establishment streak, and after playing out his option signed with the Redskins in 1976. He had back-to-back thousand-yard seasons in 1978 and ’79, sat out all of 1980 in a contract dispute, and returned to run for 714 yards and 13 TDs in ’81. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, he gained more yards in the four postseason games (610) than in the eight regular season games he appeared in (553) and was MVP of Washington’s Super Bowl win over the Dolphins.

1983 Season Summary
Appeared and started in 15 of 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Rushing
Attempts – 375 [2]
Most attempts, game - 30 (for 83 yds.) at Seattle 9/25, (for 122 yds.) vs. NY Giants 12/17
Yards – 1347 [5]
Most yards, game – 122 yards (on 30 carries) vs. NY Giants 12/17
Average gain – 3.6
TDs – 24 [1]
100-yard rushing games - 3

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 5
Most receptions, game – 2 (for 2 yds.) at Philadelphia 9/11, (for 18 yds.) vs. Kansas City 9/18
Yards – 29
Most yards, game - 18 (on 2 catches) vs. Kansas City 9/18
Average gain – 5.8
TDs – 0

Passing
Attempts – 1
Completions – 0
Yards – 0
TD passes – 0
Interceptions – 0

Scoring
TDs – 24 [1]
Points – 144 [2]

The 24 touchdowns set a then-NFL single-season record.

Postseason: 3 G
Rushing attempts – 87
Most rushing attempts, game - 36 vs. San Francisco, NFC Championship
Rushing yards – 306
Most rushing yards, game - 123 vs. San Francisco, NFC Championship
Average gain rushing – 3.5
Rushing TDs – 6
100-yard rushing games - 2

Pass receptions – 1
Most pass receptions, game - 1 vs. LA Raiders, Super Bowl
Pass receiving yards - 1
Most pass receiving yards, game - 1 vs. LA Raiders, Super Bowl
Average yards per reception – 1.0
Pass Receiving TDs – 0

Passing
Pass attempts – 1
Pass completions – 1
Passing yards – 36
TD passes – 0
Interceptions – 0

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

Redskins went 14-2 to win the NFC East with the league’s best record while leading the NFL in scoring (541 points) and touchdowns (63). Won NFC Divisional playoff over Los Angeles Rams (51-7) and NFC Championship over San Francisco 49ers (24-21). Lost Super Bowl to Los Angeles Raiders (38-9).

Aftermath:
Riggins again gained over a thousand yards (1239) and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (14) in 1984, but by 1985, his final season at age 36, he was splitting time with George Rogers. Overall, Riggins ran for 11,352 yards, which ranked fourth all-time at his retirement, and 116 touchdowns (104 rushing, 12 as a pass receiver), which ranked second. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1992.

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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 2/14/14]

September 26, 2011

1999: Favre’s Fourth-Down TD Pass Gives Packers Win Over Vikings


Some things had changed for the Green Bay Packers as they entered the 1999 NFL season. Most notably, Head Coach Mike Holmgren had departed for Seattle and was replaced by Ray Rhodes, once the team’s defensive coordinator and most recently the coach of the Eagles. All-time great DE Reggie White had retired following a 16-sack season at age 37. But 30-year-old QB Brett Favre (pictured at right), a three-time league MVP, was still behind center and the key to an offense that also included RB Dorsey Levens and WR Antonio Freeman.

The Packers had gone 11-5 in ’98 and split their first two games in 1999 before hosting the Minnesota Vikings on September 26 at Lambeau Field. The Vikings, coached by Dennis Green, were coming off of a brilliant 15-1 season in 1998 that ended up with an overtime loss to Atlanta in the NFC Championship game. QB Randall Cunningham made a spectacular comeback after a year of retirement followed by a season on the bench, and rookie WR Randy Moss was equally impressive in tandem with veteran Cris Carter. They had beaten the Falcons by three points in the opening game of ‘99 but had lost to Oakland the previous week.

Minnesota scored on its first possession of the game, driving 94 yards in 14 plays that ended with RB Leroy Hoard running for a two-yard touchdown. Along the way, Cunningham completed passes of 23 and 27 yards to Carter.

The Packers responded with an 11-play, 70-yard drive that was capped early in the second quarter by a 28-yard Ryan Longwell field goal. Favre, who accounted for 61 of those yards with five pass completions, connected with Freeman for 12 yards on a third-and-seven play and on a 37-yard pass play to WR Bill Schroeder that put the ball on the Minnesota four.

Midway through the period, Cunningham threw a pass intended for Moss, who was being triple-covered, and DB Antuan Edwards (the first of three rookie defensive backs drafted by the Packers with Minnesota’s passing game in mind) intercepted and returned it for a 26-yard touchdown, putting Green Bay ahead at 10-7. However, inside the last minute before halftime, Gary Anderson evened the score at 10-10 with a 34-yard field goal that was set up by a pass interference call on Edwards, a two-yard run by RB Moe Williams on a fourth-and-one play, and an 18-yard Cunningham completion to WR Jake Reed in a third-and-nine situation to the Packers’ 24.

The Vikings started off the second half with a 13-play possession that went 61 yards. Cunningham completed a six-yard pass to RB David Palmer on a third-and-five play and converted a fourth-and-one situation with a five-yard run to the Green Bay 40. The drive ended with a 22-yard Anderson field goal that put Minnesota back in front at 13-10. The Packers responded with a long drive of their own. Favre completed four of his eight passes, including two that converted third downs, along the way as Green Bay’s offense went 66 yards in 14 plays for a game-tying 35-yard field goal by Longwell.

Less than five minutes into the fourth quarter, Longwell put the Packers in the lead with a 34-yard field goal to cap a 13-play possession. The Minnesota passing game, which had devastated Green Bay in both meetings in ’98, had been well-defensed this time. Randy Moss had caught just one pass for three yards thus far.

But as the game edged down to the final two minutes, the Vikings went 80 yards in just five plays. Cunningham completed a 50-yard pass to Reed to the Green Bay 28. RB Robert Smith ran for 11 yards, and then Moss caught a pass between FS Darren Sharper and CB Tyrone Williams in the middle of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. With the successful extra point, Minnesota was up by 20-16 and it appeared that the Cunningham-to-Moss combination had once again done in the Packers.

Taking possession at the Green Bay 23 yard line, Favre fired a pass down the middle to WR Corey Bradford for a 22-yard gain and followed with short throws to Levens that got the ball to the Minnesota 32. An incompletion was followed by a six-yard pass to Schroeder with the clock now down to 43 seconds. The Packers took their last timeout and Favre again threw to Levens, who gained just three yards – not only was it too short for a first down, but he failed to get out of bounds.

Moving quickly up to the line without time to huddle on a fourth-and-one play, Favre took the snap, pump-faked to his right, and instead of looking for a short sideline pass to get a first down and stop the clock, went to Bradford down the middle. The wide receiver caught the pass, ran past CB Jimmy Hitchcock, and scored a 23-yard touchdown that sent the home crowd into delirium.

With the exhausted Favre getting oxygen on the sideline, the Vikings had time for just one play, which was a long “Hail Mary” pass by Cunningham that was intercepted by Edwards at the Green Bay five yard line to nail down the stunning 23-20 win for the Packers.

Green Bay outgained the Vikings (360 yards to 328) but Minnesota had the edge in first downs (21 to 20). Neither team was particularly effective on the ground, with the Vikings rushing for 97 yards on 29 attempts and the Packers running the ball 22 times for 71 yards. Green Bay also didn’t turn the ball over at all, while the Vikings did so twice.


Brett Favre completed 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards and the one touchdown. Dorsey Levens gained just 49 yards on 18 carries but also caught a team-leading 9 passes that gained another 84 yards. Bill Schroeder (pictured at left) accumulated 85 yards on his 5 catches and Corey Bradford had four receptions for 72 yards and the game-winning TD.

For the Vikings, Randall Cunningham went to the air 32 times and completed 18 of those passes for 244 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Jake Reed caught 6 passes for 108 yards while Cris Carter contributed 4 receptions for 85 yards. Randy Moss ended up with just two catches for 13 yards and the one TD. Robert Smith was the leading rusher with 85 yards on 21 carries.

“That was close to a miracle, if not a miracle,” said Ray Rhodes afterward.

Despite the thrilling win over the Vikings, the Packers remained an inconsistent team, finishing at 8-8 and in fourth place in the NFC Central, although still nearly qualifying for a wild card spot in the playoffs (two other .500 teams, the Cowboys and Lions, beat them out based on tiebreakers). Minnesota did go to the playoffs, ending up in second place in the division with a 10-6 record and the top wild card slot. The Vikings defeated Dallas in the Wild Card round and lost to the eventual-champion Rams at the Divisional level.

Brett Favre’s statistics reflected his team’s struggles and his own as he dealt with an injured thumb on his passing hand. He led the NFL in pass attempts (595), ranked second in completions (341) as well as interceptions (23), which outnumbered his TD passes (22). While his 4091 yards through the air placed fourth, his completion percentage of 57.3 was his lowest since becoming a starting quarterback in 1992.

Randall Cunningham (pictured below) had a far more disappointing season. Coming off an MVP year in 1998, he lost his starting job to Jeff George and threw for just 1475 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. It marked the end of his three-year tenure in Minnesota.

Cris Carter and Randy Moss were still top receivers, however. Carter caught 90 passes for 1241 yards (13.8 avg.) and 13 touchdowns and was a consensus first-team All-Pro selection as well as Pro Bowl choice. Moss, in his second year, had 80 catches for 1413 yards (17.7 avg.) and 11 TDs and also was chosen for the Pro Bowl.

September 25, 2011

2005: Brady & Patriots Beat Roethlisberger & Steelers with Late Field Goal


The Week 3 NFL matchup on September 25, 2005 between the host Pittsburgh Steelers and visiting New England Patriots at Heinz Field promised to be a good one. The Steelers, under Head Coach Bill Cowher, were coming off a 15-1 season in ’04 and were 2-0 thus far in ’05, having won by a combined score of 61-14. The big addition to the team in 2004 had been rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, the 6’5” and 241-pound first draft choice out of Miami of Ohio, who replaced Tommy Maddox as the starting quarterback in the third week and, although the offense had been simplified, had been nothing short of sensational. The club went 13-0 with “Big Ben” as the starting quarterback (he sat out the season finale), although defenses began to catch up to him as the year wore on. And while his regular season winning streak was now up to 15 games, Roethlisberger had suffered a defeat in the postseason – to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

New England, under Head Coach Bill Belichick, went on to win the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year following a 14-2 regular season. The Patriots had won three championships in four years, and among the key players in that period were QB Tom Brady (pictured above), the unknown backup who became a star in 2001, as well as DE Richard Seymour and linebackers Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, and Tedy Bruschi (sidelined initially in ’05 due to a minor offseason stroke). Other players came and went, yet personnel changes more often than not worked out for the well-coached club that kept on winning.

There were 64,868 fans in attendance on a 70-degree day in Pittsburgh. Following a three-and-out possession by the Steelers to start the game, WR Tim Dwight’s 19-yard return of the resulting punt gave New England good field position at the Pittsburgh 46 yard line. The Patriots proceeded to score on their first drive, starting off with three straight carries for 14 yards by RB Corey Dillon and including two passes by Brady for 25 yards, and capped by Dillon’s four-yard touchdown run. However, on the first play of Pittsburgh’s next possession, Roethlisberger threw to WR Hines Ward for an 85-yard touchdown that made the score 7-7.

On their next series, the Steelers scored again on a 33-yard field goal by Jeff Reed to move ahead by three. That was the situation at the end of the opening period as the Patriots mounted a long drive that started at their 17 and stretched into the second quarter. However, on a third-down play at the Pittsburgh 16, Brady passed to RB Kevin Faulk, who fumbled; LB Larry Foote recovered for the Steelers and returned it 27 yards.

Pittsburgh turned the ball over two plays later when Roethlisberger threw to WR Antwaan Randle El, who then attempted to lateral to Ward, resulting in a fumble that New England safety Eugene Wilson recovered. The teams traded punts at that point, and Reed missed a 52-yard field goal attempt for the Steelers with 2:37 left in the half.

Inside of two minutes, the Patriots again looked poised to score as Brady completed five passes, including one to Faulk for a 23-yard gain to the Pittsburgh three. However, an interception by safety Chris Hope on a tipped pass ended the threat and the score remained 10-7 in favor of the Steelers at halftime.

The Patriots made it to the Pittsburgh 35 in the first possession of the second half, but Adam Vinatieri’s 53-yard field goal attempt was unsuccessful. The Steelers went three-and-out and punted, but then got a break when Faulk again fumbled and DE Travis Kirschke recovered for Pittsburgh at the New England 28. Six plays later, Reed kicked a 24-yard field goal that extended the Steelers lead to 13-7. Near the end of the third quarter, and following a 28-yard punt return by Dwight, Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal to make it a three-point game heading into the final period.

Early in the fourth quarter the Patriots caught fire as Brady completed five straight passes and Dillon ran around right end for a seven-yard touchdown that put New England in the lead at 17-13. Following a Pittsburgh punt, Brady again passed the Patriots down the field as he hit on all five of his throws and Vinatieri added another three points with a 35-yard field goal.

With 3:10 remaining to play, and helped by a 44-yard kickoff return by CB Ricardo Colclough, it was Roethlisberger’s turn to move his team through the air. The Steelers went 51 yards in nine plays as “Big Ben” was successful on five passes and a pass interference call gained 23 yards to the New England four yard line. Roethlisberger completed a four-yard TD pass to Ward and, with the successful extra point, the game was tied at 20-20.

The clock was down to 1:21 as the Patriots took over at their 38 following a 34-yard kickoff return by CB Ellis Hobbs. Brady threw to Faulk for a 17-yard gain and then to FB Patrick Pass for another 14. After a running play gained nothing, Brady completed one last pass to WR David Givens for six yards down to the Pittsburgh 31, and with five seconds Vinatieri, at his best in clutch situations, booted a 43-yard field goal. New England came away with a 23-20 win.

The Patriots significantly outgained the Steelers (426 yards to 269) and had more first downs (24 to 14). However, New England turned the ball over three times, to one suffered by Pittsburgh, and was penalized 10 times, at a loss of 118 yards, to 5 times for 35 yards for the Steelers.

Still, it was a particularly impressive performance on the part of the Patriots defense because of injuries in the secondary that forced them to continually juggle personnel. CB Tyrone Poole missed the game entirely and CB Duane Starks and safety Rodney Harrison both missed at least part of the contest.

Tom Brady completed 31 of 41 passes, including his last 12 of the game, for 372 yards, with no TDs and the one interception. David Givens led the receivers with 9 catches for 130 yards. Kevin Faulk had 7 receptions for 71 yards to go along with his seven rushing attempts for 14 yards. Corey Dillon ran for 61 yards in 22 attempts, including two for touchdowns.


For Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger, a loser for the first time in the regular season as a starting quarterback, was successful on just 12 of 28 throws for 216 yards and two TDs with none intercepted. Hines Ward (pictured above) caught four of those passes for 110 yards and two scores. RB Willie Parker, who had run for over a hundred yards in each of the preceding two games, gained just 55 yards on 17 carries to pace the running attack.

“They showed us today why they're the champs,” Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said of the Patriots afterward.

New England lost two of its next three games, but went on to win the AFC East for the third straight year with a 10-6 record. However, there would be no return to the Super Bowl – after defeating Jacksonville handily in the Wild Card playoff, the Patriots lost to Denver in the Divisional round.

Instead, it was the Steelers going the distance, even though they finished second to Cincinnati in the AFC North (due to a tiebreaker) with an 11-5 tally. They won the Wild Card playoff over the Bengals, Divisional playoff against the Colts, and AFC Championship over the Broncos – all road games – before defeating Seattle in the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady led the NFL in passing yards (4110) and was third in TD passes (26) and sixth in passing (92.3 rating). He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the third time.

Ben Roethlisberger (pictured below) was limited to 12 games due to injury, but still led the league in yards per attempt (8.9), yards per completion (14.2), and percentage of TD passes (6.3, tied with Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer) and ranked third in passing (98.6) as he threw for 2385 yards with 17 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. He ended up becoming the youngest Super Bowl-winning starting quarterback at age 23.

September 24, 2011

1967: Bakken Kicks 7 Field Goals as Cardinals Defeat Steelers


Jim Bakken of the St. Louis Cardinals was already well-established as a top placekicker prior to the 1967 NFL season, having kicked 80 field goals over the previous four years and been selected to the Pro Bowl in 1965. He had kicked two three-pointers in the team’s opening-game loss to the Giants to give him field goals in 12 consecutive games. But on September 24 against the Steelers, the 26-year-old straight-ahead kicker of the old school put his name prominently in the record book.

The Cardinals, coached by Charley Winner, came into the game as ten-point underdogs. While St. Louis was coming off an 8-5-1 season in ’66, veteran QB Charley Johnson had been called up to active military duty, leaving untested second-year QB Jim Hart to direct the offense. To be sure, there was still plenty of talent on offense, including a good group of running backs in HB Johnny Roland, HB Prentice Gautt, and FB Willis Crenshaw, as well as TE Jackie Smith and flanker Bobby Joe Conrad. Still, the Steelers, under Head Coach Bill Austin, had beaten the Bears in their Week 1 game by the convincing score of 41-13 while the Cards were losing to the Giants, 37-20.

There were 45,579 fans at Pitt Stadium, and any hopes that the Steelers would cruise to a second win were quickly dashed. In the first 20 minutes of action, the Cardinals took advantage of three interceptions and a fumble recovery to put 16 points on the board while having great success at keeping Pittsburgh’s offense off-balance with blitzes.

CB Pat Fischer intercepted two passes and DT Chuck Walker recovered a fumble, keeping the action almost exclusively in Pittsburgh territory as a result. Still, the St. Louis offense had difficulty getting into the end zone. Bakken kicked first quarter field goals of 18 and 24 yards before Hart scored a touchdown near the end of the period on a 23-yard run on a broken play due to a mixup in the backfield.

Bakken kicked a 33-yard field goal in the second quarter, making the score 16-0, before the Steelers finally got on the board. Pittsburgh QB Bill Nelsen didn’t complete a pass until there were just over five minutes to go in the first half, but once he found the range he was successful on three straight throws, one of 48 yards to TE Chet Anderson and the last a five-yard scoring pass, again to Anderson. Bakken booted his fourth field goal, from 29 yards, before the first half was over and the Cardinals took a 19-7 lead into the intermission.

In the third quarter, and following an interception by DB Marv Woodson, the Steelers scored again after driving 33 yards, highlighted by a 19-yard Nelsen completion to split end Roy Jefferson, with FB Willie Asbury plunging in for a one-yard TD. That reduced the Cardinals’ margin to five points at 19-14.

However, that was it for Pittsburgh. Nelsen left the game with five minutes to go due to a knee injury after taking a pounding from the Cardinals defense, getting sacked five times and hit on several other occasions after having just gotten rid of the ball. Meanwhile, Bakken kicked three field goals, of 24, 32, and 23 yards, in the fourth quarter to nail down the 28-14 win for St. Louis as well as set a new single-game record both for field goals made and attempted in a game.

The seven field goals made broke the previous NFL mark of six set just the year before by Detroit’s Garo Yepremian (Gino Cappelletti had already kicked six in an AFL game in 1964). Bakken’s nine attempts (he missed from 50 and 45 yards) exceeded the record of eight that had been held by Yepremian, from his six-field goal game in ‘66, and Lou Michaels of the Steelers in 1962.

Five of the successful kicks were into the 14 mph wind at Pitt Stadium. Bakken also had a substitute holder for the last three, when his regular holder, FS Larry Wilson, suffered a hand injury and Bobby Joe Conrad took over.

It was also the 13th straight game in which Bakken kicked a field goal, putting him one short of the existing NFL record (he surpassed that mark and topped out at 19).

“I knew about the record, and it almost cost me,” Bakken said afterward. “When I kicked the seventh one, I wanted to see if it was any good almost before I kicked it. So I looked up and almost dubbed it. I just made it.”

Beyond Bakken’s heroics, the Cardinals outgained Pittsburgh by 283 yards to 237 while the Steelers had more first downs (17 to 12). The big difference in the game was Pittsburgh’s six turnovers, to just one suffered by the Cards.

The inexperienced Jim Hart continued to struggle, as he completed just 8 of 25 passes for 137 yards with one intercepted. In the last 2:30 of the game, Charley Johnson, on leave from military duty, made his first appearance of the season for the Cardinals but threw no passes. Prentice Gautt ran for 77 yards on 14 carries to lead the club, while split end Bill Gambrell was the top receiver with three catches for 55 yards.

For the Steelers, Bill Nelsen also was successful on just 8 of his 25 throws for 130 yards with a TD and three interceptions. His replacement, Kent Nix, was good on three of five passes for 46 yards. Chet Anderson and split end Dick Compton both caught four passes, with Anderson gaining 84 yards and scoring a touchdown (Compton had 51 yards). HB Jim “Cannonball” Butler led the club with 51 yards on 10 rushing attempts.

The Cardinals won their next two games but then tailed off to finish at 6-7-1 and in third place in the Century Division. Jim Hart showed poise and potential as the starting quarterback, although he also tossed 30 interceptions, but an undercurrent of racial discord led to dissension on the club. Pittsburgh lost four more games in a row before beating the expansion Saints and ended up at the bottom of the division with a 4-9-1 record.

Jim Bakken led the NFL in field goals (27), field goal percentage (69.2), and scoring (117) and was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time. As was the case with most kickers of that era (not to mention earlier in football history), Bakken had not started out as a specialist but had been a high school quarterback and college defensive back who also handled the placekicking. He was originally drafted out of Wisconsin by the Rams as a safety in 1962 and was waived and picked up by the Cardinals. While Bakken saw some action in the defensive backfield that first year, he became the team’s full-time placekicker in ’63 and remained in the job until 1978, a total of 16 seasons.

At the time of his retirement, Bakken ranked third in career field goals in NFL history (282, tied with Fred Cox), extra points (534), and second in scoring (1380 points). He had a respectable 63.1 percent success rate on his field goal attempts and was a consensus first-team All-Pro twice later in his career (1975 and ’76) and was selected to a total of four Pro Bowls. Soccer-style kickers, who had not yet entered the pro ranks when Bakken first started out, were dominant by the end of his career, which even spanned the move of the goal posts from the goal line to the back of the end zone in 1974. But the player who had learned to placekick as an afterthought while playing other positions before he was a pro ended up being one of the best of the old-style kickers.

The record of seven field goals in a game was equaled by Rich Karlis of the Vikings in 1989, as well as two Dallas placekickers, Chris Boniol in 1996 and Billy Cundiff in 2003, before being broken by Tennessee’s Rob Bironas with eight in a contest against the Texans in 2007 (Shayne Graham of the Bengals kicked seven in a game later in the ’07 season). The record of nine attempts in a game still stands as of this writing, and Bakken of course remains the only straight-ahead kicker with as many as seven.

September 23, 2011

1974: Defense & Dempsey Key Eagles Upset of Cowboys


The Monday Night Football game on September 23, 1974 featured two NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys, under Head Coach Tom Landry, had been the far more successful of the two clubs, having been to the postseason in each of the preceding eight seasons. They were coming off of a 10-4 record in ’73 and had won their season-opening game over the Falcons handily by a score of 24-0. Moreover, they had won 12 of the last 13 matchups with the Eagles dating back to 1967.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, was once again in rebuilding mode under second-year Head Coach Mike McCormack. The Eagles had been over .500 just twice since last winning a league championship in 1960 and were on their fifth head coach since that time. McCormack replaced Ed Khayat after a dreadful 2-11-1 season in 1972 in which the team produced a total of just 145 points and 12 touchdowns. A major deal was swung to bring veteran QB Roman Gabriel from the Rams, and the offense improved significantly in ’73, although the overall record was still only 5-8-1. For 1974, another major trade was made to upgrade the defense as Philadelphia obtained star MLB Bill Bergey from Cincinnati. In the Week 1 game at St. Louis against the Cardinals, the Eagles gave up just seven points – but scored only three.

There were 64,088 fans at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, and for most of the game they saw both offenses struggle. The Eagles couldn’t move the ball, but star QB Roger Staubach of the Cowboys missed on his first six pass attempts.

However, in the second quarter, Dallas put together a 90-yard drive with three Staubach completions along the way and RB Doug Dennison scored from three yards out. That was it for the first half scoring as the Cowboys led by 7-0 at halftime.

In the third quarter, Dallas was driving deep into Eagles territory again after a Gabriel pass was intercepted by CB Charlie Waters. Once more at the three yard line Dennison took the handoff, but this time he fumbled when hit by Bergey just short of the goal line. CB Joe “Big Bird” Lavender picked the loose ball up on the bounce and ran 96 yards up the sideline for a touchdown. Instead of the Cowboys being ahead by two touchdowns, in stunning fashion the score was tied at 7-7.


Such was the situation as the game entered the fourth quarter. A poor 26-yard punt by the Cowboys gave Philadelphia good field position, and with just under 12 minutes to play, Tom Dempsey gave the Eagles the lead with a 34-yard field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, Dallas RB Dennis Morgan returned the kick 36 yards and might have broken free but was tackled by the 265-pound Dempsey, who had played defensive end in junior college. As it was, with 8:34 left, Mac Percival kicked a 26-yard field goal to again tie the score at 10-10.

Coach McCormack considered replacing the ineffective Roman Gabriel with backup John Reaves, as the 34-year-old veteran had completed only four passes and the offense had just one first down. Leaving the ex-Ram in, Gabriel proceeded to throw to RB Po James for a 34-yard gain and WR Harold Carmichael for 13. He gained six yards on a quarterback draw, giving Philadelphia three first downs in the series. However, with the clock down to 3:13, RB Tom Sullivan fumbled and Dallas LB Dave Edwards recovered at his own 11.

Three plays later, the Eagles got the ball back when SS Randy Logan intercepted a Staubach pass intended for WR Drew Pearson at the sideline with 1:49 left. Typical of how most of the game had gone for the Eagles offense, they ran the ball twice for negligible yardage and Gabriel threw an incompletion, necessitating a 45-yard field goal attempt.

Dempsey was again successful and his kick put Philadelphia in front with 25 seconds to play. However, the Cowboys still had a shot and drove from their 18 to the Philadelphia 31 thanks to two Staubach passes to Pearson. But with two seconds left on the clock, Percival missed a 48-yard field goal attempt into the wind that fell short and to the left. The Eagles came away with a hard-fought 13-10 upset win.

Dallas dominated statistically, outgaining Philadelphia (385 yards to 165) and accumulating far more first downs (20 to 5). The Cowboys both outran the Eagles (168 yards to 98) and outpassed them (217 yards to 67) while both teams turned the ball over three times.

Roman Gabriel completed only 6 of 14 passes for 92 yards with one intercepted. Tom Sullivan was the leading rusher with 57 yards on 16 carries and Harold Carmichael the top receiver with two catches for 45 yards. Tom Dempsey, with the two clutch field goals, and Bill Bergey, who was credited with 18 tackles, were the stars of the game, along with Joe Lavender and his team-record fumble return (a record that lasted until 2006).

For the Cowboys, Roger Staubach was successful on 19 of 33 passes for 217 yards, but none were good for scores while two were intercepted. Drew Pearson was the primary offensive weapon as he caught 10 passes for 161 yards. RB Robert Newhouse rushed for 97 yards on 22 attempts.

“The defense and Tom Dempsey won the game,” said Coach McCormack afterward. Each member of the defense and Dempsey received game balls.

The big concern for the Eagles was that, for the second straight week, the offense had not gotten the ball into the end zone. Still, they got off to a 4-1 start before losing six straight games (starting with a 31-24 defeat at the hands of the Cowboys in Dallas). They won their last three (with rookie Mike Boryla starting at quarterback for the benched Gabriel) to salvage a 7-7 record that put them in fourth place in the NFC East.

Dallas went on to have an off-year, losing their next three games before recovering to win 7 of the last 9. The Cowboys finished third in the division with an 8-6 tally and missed the postseason for the first time since 1965.

With his job reportedly on the line coming into the Monday night game against Dallas, Tom Dempsey’s two field goals earned him a reprieve and he finished out the season (the first since 1932 in which the goal posts were at the back of the end zone rather than the goal line) with 10 field goals in 16 attempts. The hefty placekicker born without toes on his right foot, and who had booted a record 63-yard field goal for the Saints in 1970 before coming over to the Eagles in ’71, had been the team’s player representative during the ’74 preseason strike and acrimony had risen between him and owner Leonard Tose. He was traded to the Rams after the season.

Bill Bergey’s dominating performance against the Cowboys was the first of many and he had an outstanding year, garnering consensus first-team All-Pro honors for the first of two consecutive seasons. He was also selected to the Pro Bowl, an honor he would achieve four times while with the Eagles. The leader of the defense (as well as its best player) inspired chants of “Ber-gey, Ber-gey” from the Philadelphia fans that would become a regular feature of games at the Vet during his heyday. (Bergey pictured below)

September 22, 2011

2002: Saints Come From 20 Points Down to Beat Bears


The Week 3 matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears on September 22, 2002 featured two teams that had gotten off to 2-0 starts. The Bears, coming off a 13-3 season in ’01 under Head Coach Dick Jauron, had a conservative offense led by QB Jim Miller, a competent game manager, and RB Anthony Thomas, the NFC’s top offensive rookie in 2001. The defense had been top-ranked in the league and featured a solid line, star MLB Brian Urlacher, and CB R.W. McQuarters and FS Mike Brown in the backfield.

New Orleans, on the other hand, had been 7-9 in 2001 after going to the postseason in 2000. Coached by Jim Haslett, the Saints dealt away RB Ricky Williams, who never quite lived up to the heavy price of an entire slate of draft picks to obtain him in 1999, and RB Deuce McAllister had emerged in his place. The mobile and hard-throwing Aaron Brooks (pictured above) directed the attack at quarterback.

There were 63,216 fans present at Memorial Stadium of the University of Illinois, which was serving as home for the Bears while Soldier Field underwent a complete overhaul. They saw the Bears get the first break of the day when McAllister fumbled at midfield and LB Bryan Knight recovered for Chicago. The Bears drove to the New Orleans 13 yard line in 10 plays and Paul Edinger kicked a 31-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.

On the third play of the Saints’ next possession, Brooks was intercepted by CB Reggie Austin, again near midfield. Thomas ran the ball four straight times, including a 24-yard gain to the 15 yard line, and Miller completed a 10-yard touchdown pass to WR Dez White. The score stood at 10-0 after one quarter.

Early in the second quarter, the Bears scored again when a six-play, 56-yard drive ended with Miller throwing to WR Marty Booker for a 22-yard TD. The Saints turned the ball over once again, with Brooks fumbling and Knight recovering for the second time for Chicago. With the ball at the New Orleans 27, the Bears seemed well positioned to deliver a killing blow, but had to settle for another Edinger field goal, this time from 25 yards. Still, Chicago led by 20-0 with just under twelve minutes remaining in the first half.

The New Orleans offense responded by coming alive on a nine-play possession that included six straight pass completions by Brooks. He threw to WR Jerome Pathon for a 16-yard touchdown that finally got the Saints on the board. On the ensuing kickoff, it was Chicago’s turn to hurt itself with a turnover as RB Leon Johnson fumbled and the Saints recovered at the Bears’ eight. Two plays later, Brooks ran for a seven-yard touchdown and the once-imposing margin was down to six points at 20-14.

In the third quarter, New Orleans took the kickoff and methodically drove 65 yards in 12 plays that featured a 24-yard completion from Brooks to Pathon along the way and ended with Brooks tossing a five-yard touchdown pass to WR Joe Horn. John Carney’s extra point was good, and the Saints took the lead at 21-20. The teams traded punts until early in the fourth quarter, when Edinger capped a 70-yard drive with a 25-yard field goal that put the Bears back in front at 23-21.

The teams again traded punts and, with the clock down to 3:21 in the game, the Saints took over at their 27. Brooks completed all four of his passes and ran for 14 yards as New Orleans went 73 yards in 7 plays, ending with WR Donte’ Stallworth pulling in a pass for a 29-yard touchdown, and retook the lead.

Chicago still had over a minute to work with, and Miller passed the team down the field, including completions of 19 yards to Booker and 20 to White. But with a second down at the New Orleans 18, his pass to the goal line was intercepted by safety Sammy Knight to nail down the 29-23 win for the Saints.

The Bears outgained New Orleans (353 yards to 302) and also had more first downs (21 to 18). The Saints even gave up more turnovers with three to Chicago’s two and were penalized ten times.


Aaron Brooks completed 22 of 34 passes for 233 yards with three touchdowns and one interception; he also ran the ball seven times for 28 yards and a TD. Joe Horn caught 6 passes for 42 yards and a score while Jerome Pathon (pictured at left) gained 71 yards on his 5 catches, also including a touchdown. Deuce McAllister was held to 45 yards rushing on 17 carries and grabbed four passes for 42 more.

For the Bears, Jim Miller went to the air 40 times, with 26 completions for 236 yards that included two TDs against one that was picked off. Anthony Thomas ran for 111 yards on 27 attempts. Marty Booker caught 8 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown.

“It's tough when you're down 20-0, especially in the NFL,” Aaron Brooks said. “We were lucky we didn't get blown out. We could have been down 28-0 at the half.”

“We came in at halftime down 20-14 and the guys knew we were going to win the game,” added Coach Haslett.

The Saints lost to Detroit the next week but won three more in a row to peak at 6-1 before going 3-6 the rest of the way. They finished in third place in the NFC South at 9-7 and just missed the postseason. The loss to New Orleans was the first of eight strait for Chicago. The injury-riddled Bears ended up a poor third in the NFC North at 4-12.

Aaron Brooks tied for second in the league in touchdown passes with 27, but also was sacked 36 times, which tied for the fourth most, and was prone to inconsistency. Deuce McAllister led the NFC by rushing for 1388 yards on 325 carries and scored a total of 16 TDs (13 rushing, 3 receiving).

Jim Miller (pictured below) suffered through shoulder and knee injuries and played in just ten games, with Chris Chandler taking over until he, too, was lost - inexperienced Henry Burris finished off the dismal season. Miller ended up passing for 1944 yards with 13 touchdowns and 9 interceptions and was waived afterward, essentially marking the end of his NFL career (he was a backup for three more teams, but never appeared in another regular season game) in which he demonstrated great toughness, if not much savvy. Anthony Thomas slumped badly as the season progressed and then was sidelined by a broken finger after rushing for 721 yards while averaging 3.4 yards per attempt. “The A-Train” bounced back with a 1024-yard campaign in 2003.

September 21, 2011

1986: O’Brien Outduels Marino as Jets Defeat Dolphins in Overtime Thriller


The September 21, 1986 game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands featured two first-round quarterbacks from the highly-touted 1983 draft field. After three seasons, Miami’s Dan Marino had already established himself as one of the top passers in the game. He had put together an astounding season in 1984 as the Dolphins advanced to the AFC Championship, and even after getting a late start due to a training camp holdout in ’85, still threw for 4746 yards and 44 touchdown passes. The Dolphins went 12-4 but lacked a meaningful running attack and didn’t stop the run very well, either. After nearly being upset by the 8-8 Cleveland Browns in the Divisional playoff, they were beaten by the Patriots in the AFC title game. Coming into the contest against the Jets, they were 1-1, having given up 50 points in a loss to the Chargers in the season-opening game but then having comfortably beaten the Colts in Week 2.

Ken O’Brien of the Jets had taken longer to develop, having not played at all during his rookie season in ’83. He took over as the starting quarterback in the last five games of the 1984 season (after getting caught up in a trial pertaining to a brawl at the Studio 54 night club in New York City). Still, he had broken out with a Pro Bowl year in ’85, throwing for 3888 yards and 25 TDs against just 8 interceptions. The Jets, having put together back-to-back 7-9 seasons under Head Coach Joe Walton, improved to 11-5 and were viewed as a team on the rise. An ’86 opening-day win at Buffalo had been followed by a dismal 20-6 loss to the Patriots the next week. Such was the stage set for the matchup with division-rival Miami.

The game started off quietly enough, with the teams trading punts until Jets WR Kurt Sohn returned one 27 yards to give New York excellent starting field position at the Miami 23 yard line. While the offense failed to move the ball, Pat Leahy kicked a 32-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.

The Dolphins promptly came alive on their next possession as Marino threw back-to-back completions to WR Mark Duper of 22 and 21 yards. The six-play, 67-yard drive ended with a six-yard scoring pass to WR James Pruitt and Miami held a 7-3 lead after a quarter of play.

As the game moved into the second quarter, O’Brien moved the Jets along with four pass completions and RB Johnny Hector scored on a one-yard touchdown run to put New York back in the lead at 10-7. Two plays into Miami’s ensuing possession, safety Lester Lyles intercepted a Marino pass and returned it to the Dolphins’ 19 yard line. Three snaps later, Hector ran eight yards up the middle and it was a 17-7 game.


Miami came right back with big plays through the air. Marino threw to WR Mark Clayton for a 42-yard gain, went to Clayton again for 13 more, and then to Duper for 21 yards down to the New York one. On a play-action pass, Marino threw to TE Dan Johnson for a TD and, with the successful PAT, a three-point game.

Shortly thereafter, it was Miami’s turn to benefit from a turnover as CB Don McNeal intercepted a pass that was bobbled by Jets WR JoJo Townsell. With a 17-yard return, the Dolphins took over at the New York 13 and, two plays later, Marino found Duper in the corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown and 21-17 lead.

It didn’t take long for the Jets to strike back as O’Brien threw long to a wide-open WR Wesley Walker who went all the way for a 65-yard touchdown. Following a Miami punt, New York got the ball back but had to kick it away with under a minute to go in the first half. However, Pruitt and safety Reyna Thompson collided, the ball hit Thompson, and LB Matt Monger recovered for the Jets at midfield. O’Brien immediately went long for Walker, who gathered it in for a 50-yard touchdown, and the Jets took a 31-21 lead into halftime.

Already, both quarterbacks had thrown for over 200 yards (Marino with 245, O’Brien 203), and things did not slow down in the third quarter. After a three-and-out series by the Jets, Marino connected with Duper for a 46-yard touchdown that cut New York’s margin to 31-28. The Jets turned the ball over on the next possession when O’Brien was sacked by LB Mark Brown, fumbled, and NT George Little recovered for the Dolphins at the New York 47. Six plays later, and after Clayton dropped a long pass at the five yard line, Fuad Reveiz kicked a 44-yard field goal and the score was tied at 31-31.

The Jets again turned the ball over on a fumble two plays into the next possession, and again Miami capitalized six plays after that on a one-yard Marino pass to TE Bruce Hardy that put the Dolphins back in front at 38-31.

Nearing the midpoint of the fourth quarter, the Jets tied the score following an 80-yard drive in 11 plays that featured a pass from O’Brien to WR Al Toon for 36 yards and a one-yard carry by RB Tony Paige on a fourth-and-one play at the Miami eight. RB Dennis Bligen ran for a seven-yard TD and Leahy’s extra point made it 38-38 with 8:32 to go in regulation.

Following a Miami punt, Walker fumbled after catching a short pass from O’Brien and LB Jackie Shipp gave the Dolphins possession at the New York 27. Helped along by an unnecessary roughness penalty, Miami again made the Jets pay when Marino threw to Clayton for a four-yard touchdown. The Dolphins were again in front at 45-38.

With the clock down to under two minutes, Miami got the ball back but was unable to get a clinching first down on a third-and-seven play and had to punt. Starting from their 20 and with only one timeout left, the Jets moved down the field. A pass from O’Brien to TE Mickey Shuler turned into a big gain when the tight end, after gaining seven yards, lateraled to Hector, who went another 21 yards to the Dolphins’ 39. Following the final timeout and two completions to Shuler, O’Brien threw to Walker and, with no time remaining, the wide receiver gathered in the pass at the two yard line and dove into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. Leahy’s all-important extra point was good, and with the score tied at 45-45, the contest went into overtime.

The Jets won the toss to start the extra period and, following a 19-yard kickoff return, they took possession at their 22 yard line. O’Brien threw to Toon for back-to-back completions that totaled 25 yards and, following two running plays, he went deep once more to Walker. Walker grabbed the ball at the goal line for a 43-yard touchdown and the Jets came away with a stunning 51-45 win at 2:35 into overtime.

The teams combined for 1066 total yards of offense, with the Jets holding the edge at 581 to 485. The total of 884 yards through the air set a league record. New York also accumulated 32 first downs, to 27 for the Dolphins, but also turned the ball over four times, to three turnovers suffered by Miami.

Ken O’Brien completed 29 of 43 passes for 479 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. While Al Toon had the most catches for the Jets, with 7 for 111 yards, Wesley Walker (pictured below) had the more noteworthy performance with 6 receptions for 194 yards and four TDs – made even more impressive because he had been dealing with a groin injury coming into the game. Johnny Hector led the running game with 82 yards on 22 carries and two scores.



For Miami, Dan Marino went to the air 50 times and had 30 completions for 448 yards and six touchdowns; he was picked off twice. Mark Clayton caught 8 passes for 174 yards and a TD and Mark Duper was right behind with 7 receptions for 154 yards and two scores. RB Tony Nathan was the leading ground-gainer with 36 yards on four carries (the Dolphins had just 50 yards of rushing offense).

“I was down on myself because I fumbled the ball. I thought I lost the game for the team,” said Wesley Walker afterward. “I was just grateful I was given the opportunity to make it up.”

“It's a shame to waste a performance like this by Marino,” said a disappointed Coach Don Shula of the Dolphins. “We let it go down the drain.”

The Jets went on to win their next eight straight games, but then lost the final five (starting with a 45-3 whipping by the Dolphins in Miami) to end up at 10-6, good enough for second place in the AFC East and a wild card playoff spot. They defeated the Chiefs in the first round but lost to Cleveland in overtime in the Divisional playoff game. Miami continued to be plagued by inconsistency and finished in third place in the division with an 8-8 record.

Ken O’Brien went on to throw for 3690 yards and ranked second in the league with 25 touchdowns. As was the case against the Dolphins, Al Toon was the team’s top receiver with 85 catches for 1176 yards and eight TDs and earned consensus first-team All-Pro honors. Wesley Walker had 49 receptions for 1016 yards to average 20.7 yards-per-catch (tied for second best in the NFL with Green Bay’s Walter Stanley) and scored 12 touchdowns.

Dan Marino led the league in pass attempts (623), completions (378), yards (4746), TD passes (44), and percentage of TD passes (7.1). He ranked second in passing (92.5 rating) but also in interceptions (23, tied with Randy Wright of the Packers). Mark Duper caught 67 passes for a career-high 1313 yards and 11 touchdowns and Mark Clayton had 60 receptions for 1150 yards and 10 scores; both joined Marino in being selected to the Pro Bowl.

September 20, 2011

MVP Profile: Glenn Dobbs, 1946

Tailback/Defensive Back, Brooklyn Dodgers


Age: 26
1st season in pro football
College: Tulsa
Height: 6’4” Weight: 210

Prelude:
A star tailback and punter in college, Dobbs was chosen by the Chicago Cardinals in the first round of the 1943 NFL draft, but went into the military instead. After starring in service football, he joined the Dodgers of the new AAFC in 1946, a club that utilized a single-wing attack.

1946 Season Summary
Appeared in 12 of 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Passing
Attempts – 269 [1]
Completions – 135 [1]
Yards – 1886 [1]
Completion percentage – 50.2 [4]
Yards per attempt – 7.0 [3]
TD passes – 13 [4]
Most TD passes, game – 2 vs. Buffalo 11/10, at Miami 12/13
Interceptions – 15 [1]
Passer rating – 66.0 [4]

Rushing
Attempts – 95
Yards – 208
Yards per attempt – 2.2
TDs – 4

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 1
Yards – -5
TDs - 0

Punting
Punts – 80 [1]
Yards – 3826 [1]
Average – 47.8 [1]
Punts blocked – 2

Interceptions
Interceptions – 2 [20, tied with many]
Return yards – 44 [18]
TDs – 0

Kickoff Returns
Returns – 12 [6, tied with Edgar Jones]
Yards – 214 [12]
Average per return – 17.8
TDs – 0

Punt Returns
Returns – 7 [17, tied with four others]
Yards – 146 [11]
Average per return – 20.9
TDs – 1
Longest return – 78 yards

All-Purpose yards – 563

Scoring
TDs – 6 [9, tied with five others]
Points – 36 [15, tied with six others]

Awards & Honors:
AAFC MVP: League
1st team All-NFL/AAFC: Chicago Herald-American
1st team All-AAFC: League, AP, UPI, NY Daily News

Dodgers went 3-10-1 to finish in a tie for second place in the Eastern Division, although they ranked second in the AAFC in passing offense (2258 yards).

Aftermath:
In a major trade early in the 1947 season, Dobbs was dealt to the Los Angeles Dons. Playing quarterback in the T-formation, his performance suffered, but in ’48 a new head coach, Jimmy Phelan, created a new offense (the Phelan spread) in order to more fully utilize Dobbs’ talents. Dobbs responded with an outstanding season in which he set pro football records for pass attempts (369) and completions (185). He also had his best pro rushing season (539 yards) and again led the league in punting (49.1). Injuries significantly diminished Dobbs’ performance in 1949, and with the demise of the AAFC following that season, he retired from pro football. After an absence of a year, in which he was a sportscaster in Tulsa, Dobbs joined the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Canada, playing three more seasons (and winning MVP honors in the Western league in ’51) before further injuries set in, and serving as a player/coach. Overall, as a pro he passed for 11,072 yards and 96 TDs, rushed for 1280 yards, and had a 45.7 punting average.

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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 2/14/14]

September 19, 2011

1971: Giants Beat Packers in Wild Game of Mishaps and Big Plays


It was a rainy day in Green Bay on September 19, 1971 as the Packers hosted the New York Giants in the season-opening game for both teams. Green Bay was coming off a 6-8 year in ’70, the second of three losing records since winning a third straight championship in 1967, Vince Lombardi’s last year as head coach. Having gone 20-21-1 under Phil Bengtson, Dan Devine was hired away from the University of Missouri to take over the coaching reins. There was talent at running back with HB Donny Anderson and the first draft pick out of Ohio State, FB John Brockington, as well as guard Gale Gillingham, DT Mike McCoy, and LB Fred Carr. There were still some of the great players from the Lombardi era around, but they were getting up in years and included 34-year-old safety Willie Wood, 33-year-old WR Carroll Dale, 34-year-old MLB Ray Nitschke, and most significantly of all, QB Bart Starr, back for his 16th year at age 37 but unavailable for the opening game due to injury.

The Giants, coached by Alex Webster, had gone 9-5 in ’70, their best record since they last appeared in a NFL Championship game in 1963. But while they still had eleventh-year veteran QB Fran Tarkenton, the NFC’s third-ranked passer the previous year, HB Ron Johnson, who had gained 1514 yards from scrimmage (1027 rushing, 487 receiving), was injured. The defense had talent in DE Fred Dryer, CB Willie Williams, and FS Carl “Spider” Lockhart. But there were holes, and losses in all six preseason games did not inspire confidence.

There were 56,263 fans present at Lambeau Field. Zeke Bratkowski, another relic of the Lombardi era who had come out of retirement at age 39, started at quarterback for the Packers. Green Bay scored first in unusual but spectacular fashion when a field goal attempt by New York’s Pete Gogolak fell short and CB Ken Ellis returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, tying the then-NFL record. The score stood at 7-0 after a quarter of play.

The Giants came back on a drive highlighted by a 43-yard pass play from Tarkenton to TE Rich Kotite. A scrambling Tarkenton then threw a six-yard TD pass to Rich Houston (pictured above), who had only recently been converted from defensive back to wide receiver.

The next score was set up by a turnover when New York’s Tom Blanchard punted and the ball hit the heel of Packers safety Al Randolph, who had slipped and fallen on the wet turf. Safety Joe Green recovered for the Giants on what was technically a fumble and Tarkenton connected again with Houston for a 39-yard touchdown on the next play, giving New York the lead at 14-7.

Less than five minutes later, there were two touchdowns scored by the Giants within six seconds of play, both on fumble recoveries. First, with the Packers backed up to their own three yard line, HB Dave Hampton fumbled a handoff in his end zone that New York LB Ralph Heck recovered for a TD. The ensuing kickoff went between Hampton and RB Larry Krause. Hampton handled it but, instead of downing it in the end zone, made an attempt to run and was hit and fumbled, and Green made his second recovery, this time for another New York touchdown.

Hampton partially redeemed himself by returning the next kickoff 44 yards and coming close to breaking it all the way. The Packers then drove 52 yards with Bratkowski throwing to Hampton for a 19-yard touchdown with just a few seconds left in the half. The halftime score was 28-14 in favor of the visitors.

The Giants not only led in the score but in all major statistical departments as well after one half of play. As a result, and despite the scoring drive at the end of the first half, Green Bay’s Coach Devine switched from Bratkowski to rookie QB Scott Hunter in the second half.

The Packers narrowed the margin to 28-17 in the third quarter thanks to a 28-yard field goal by Lou Michaels. However, the Giants came back with an 81-yard pass play from Tarkenton to Houston for another TD. Hampton returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards for the Packers, and that led to a touchdown as Hunter threw to TE Rich McGeorge on a 21-yard play.


With the score now 35-24, the Packers got the ball and Hunter fumbled at his own 20. New York LB Jim Files recovered and Tarkenton (pictured at left) again made Green Bay pay for turning the ball over as he immediately fired a pass to FB Tucker Frederickson in the end zone. The Giants held a 42-24 lead after three quarters.

In the fourth quarter, the Packers drove 74 yards with Donny Anderson capping the drive with a 19-yard touchdown run in which he broke three tackles. With the Packers behind by 42-31 and just over seven minutes on the clock, SS Doug Hart intercepted a pass along the sideline in front of the Green Bay bench. New York OT Bob Hyland, an ex-Packer, pushed Hart out of bounds and slid into Coach Devine in the resulting pileup. Devine had to be carried off the field with an apparent leg injury and was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where doctors found two major bones broken in his lower left leg. His leg was immediately reset, and upon coming out of the anesthetic, Devine asked, “They didn’t give up, did they?”

The Packers didn’t give up, and in fact the loss of the head coach seemed to fire the team up (Defensive line coach Dave Hanner took over field strategy for the remainder of the game).

Hart’s interception set up the last touchdown by the Packers, an 18-yard pass from Hunter to Carroll Dale that closed the gap to 42-38. With 2:38 left, Hart made another big play when he tackled the Giants’ Blanchard in the end zone after the punter fielded a bad snap that sailed over his head.

It was now a two-point game and Green Bay got the ball back following the safety. The Packers drove from their 46 to the New York 36 yard line, but in the last minute an interception by Files on a pass up the middle that was intended for Dale finally stopped the Packers for good. New York came away from the wildly-contested game with a 42-40 win.

The Packers outgained the Giants (348 yards to 323) and had more first downs (17 to 12). However, they undid themselves by fumbling six times, losing four of them, as well as turning the ball over on the interception on the final drive. New York, by contrast, turned the ball over just once, although it was a pickoff that set up a touchdown – and removed Green Bay’s head coach from the game.

Fran Tarkenton completed 13 of 21 passes for 236 yards with four touchdowns and the one interception. Rich Houston was the receiving star with 6 catches for 151 yards and three TDs. Tucker Frederickson was New York’s leading rusher with 42 yards on 10 carries.

For the Packers, Zeke Bratkowski was successful on 6 of 10 throws for 66 yards and a touchdown in his half of action; Scott Hunter completed 9 of 16 passes for 158 yards that included two TDs against the one interception. Donny Anderson ran for 99 yards on 16 attempts with one TD; John Brockington, in his first game, added 34 yards on 9 attempts and had 3 catches for 9 yards. WR John Spilis caught 3 passes for 70 yards, while the 12th-year veteran Carroll Dale also had 3 receptions, for 66 yards and a score.

“I was the first one to see Hart,” Bob Hyland said afterward about the play that resulted in Dan Devine sustaining a broken leg. “I pushed him (Hart) out of bounds and then slid right into Devine. I feel sick about it.”


Devine returned to the sidelines on crutches and wearing a cast (pictured at right). The Packers won their next two games, but only two more the rest of the year as they finished at the bottom of the NFC Central with a 4-8-2 record (adding fuel to the debate over pro teams hiring coaches directly from the college ranks). While the running game was strong, the lack of a quality quarterback (Bart Starr appeared in just four games in what was his final season) proved detrimental and the defense had too many holes.

John Brockington emerged to lead the NFC with 1105 rushing yards. Donny Anderson rushed for 757 yards and caught 26 passes for 306 more, but clashed with Devine and was traded to the Cardinals in the offseason. Carroll Dale led the club in pass receiving with 31 catches for 598 yards and four TDs. Scott Hunter was the starting quarterback most of the way and suffered plenty of growing pains as he gave up 17 interceptions, as opposed to just 7 touchdown passes.

As for the Giants, they ended up at the bottom of the NFC East with a 4-10 tally. The loss of Ron Johnson, who played in just two games, proved deadly to the offense (Bobby Duhon led the club in rushing with 344 yards) while the defense ranked at the bottom of the conference. Fran Tarkenton completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 2567 yards and 11 TDs, but also was intercepted 21 times. Rich Houston didn’t come close to duplicating his spectacular opening-game numbers and ended up with 24 catches for 426 yards (17.8 avg.), scoring one more TD to give him four for the year.

September 18, 2011

1949: Scores by Defense Propel Browns Over Yankees


The Cleveland Browns had won three All-America Football Conference championships and were unbeaten in 26 straight games (they were tied twice, including the ’49 season opening game against Buffalo) as they took on the New York Yankees on September 18, 1949. The powerful club added DB Warren Lahr and tackle Darrell Palmer for its fourth season, as well as HB Les Horvath (pictured at right), a former Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State who had played two years for the NFL Rams. Typically, the Browns had no trouble scoring points with their well-balanced offense, but on this day it would be up to the defense to pull out another win.

The Yankees, now combined with the defunct Brooklyn Dodgers for the AAFC’s fourth season, were coached by Red Strader and were operating out of the T-formation for the first time. Don Panciera was the starting quarterback, and the backfield also featured halfbacks Buddy Young and Sherman Howard and FB Bob Kennedy, although it was missing star running tailback Orban “Spec” Sanders, who had twice led the league in rushing but missed all of ’49 with a knee injury. The line included tackles Arnie Weinmeister and Martin Ruby, guard Joe Signaigo, and center Brad Ecklund, and the defensive backfield had outstanding players in Tom Landry, Otto Schnellbacher, and Harmon Rowe. While the Browns had played two games and gone 1-0-1, New York opened its season just the previous week at Buffalo and was 1-0.

There were 26,312 fans at Municipal Stadium on a rainy day in Cleveland. They saw the visitors score first, on a 25-yard field goal by Harvey Johnson. But still in the first quarter, Horvath picked up a fumble by New York’s Young and ran 84 yards for a touchdown.

The Yankees outplayed the Browns, who were without star FB Marion Motley due to a rib injury, and put heavy pressure on star QB Otto Graham (who no doubt missed Motley’s outstanding blocking as well as his running). But while New York was inside Cleveland’s 20 yard line on six occasions, and three times inside the 10, the Yankees couldn’t put any more points on the board.

After turning the ball over on downs in the third quarter at the one foot line, the Yankees missed an opportunity to score a defensive touchdown of their own when Graham, fading back into his own end zone, threw a pass that hit G Johnny Mastrangelo in the stomach, but he dropped the ball.

Late in the fourth quarter, DB Tommy James intercepted a pass by Panciera and returned it 27 yards for a TD. Lou Saban, kicking in place of Lou Groza, added his second extra point and the Browns survived to win, 14-3.

New York outgained the Browns (311 yards to 125) and led in first downs (15 to 5). Otto Graham completed just 4 of 10 passes for 36 yards and the Cleveland offense never penetrated deeper into New York territory than the 47 yard line.

The Browns went on to win two more games before being beaten convincingly by their arch-rivals, the 49ers. While that briefly put them in second place, they went 5-0-1 the rest of the way to top the AAFC (which went without divisions in its last year, due to the reduction to seven teams) with a 9-1-2 record. Along the way, they handily defeated New York at Yankee Stadium by a 31-0 score. The Yankees finished third at 8-4 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the second-place 49ers. Cleveland defeated Buffalo in the first round and San Francisco for a fourth league title before moving on to the NFL.

Les Horvath, who was strictly a reserve, retired after the ’49 season to go into dentistry (he had a successful practice for many years in Los Angeles). Tommy James (pictured below), who had started his career in the NFL with Detroit in 1947 before moving over to the Browns in ’48, stayed with Cleveland for another six seasons before finishing up with the Baltimore Colts in 1956. His interception against the Yankees was one of 34 that he accumulated (8 in the AAFC, 25 in the NFL) and his only one that he returned for a touchdown, although he did score on a fumble recovery in 1953.

September 17, 2011

1961: Vikings Thrash Bears for Franchise’s First Win


The Minnesota Vikings launched their first regular season on September 17, 1961 as they hosted the well-established Chicago Bears at Metropolitan Stadium. The new team was coached by Norm Van Brocklin, who had ended his illustrious career as a quarterback after leading the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFL title in ’60 in the expectation that he would succeed Head Coach Buck Shaw, who also retired. When the Eagles elevated assistant coach Nick Skorich instead, a miffed Van Brocklin accepted the opportunity to coach an expansion team.

As usual with expansion teams, the Vikings approached the inaugural season with a group of unwanted veterans and untested young players. In this instance, the veterans included QB George Shaw, most recently of the Giants; aging all-time great HB Hugh McElhenny of the 49ers; Dave Middleton, a seventh-year end from Detroit; DE Don Joyce of the Colts; and G Gerry Huth, fresh from the Eagles’ championship team. Rookies obtained in the draft were Tulane HB Tommy Mason (first round), LB Rip Hawkins from North Carolina (second round), Georgia QB Fran Tarkenton (third round), and defensive back Ed Sharockman of Pitt (fifth round).

The Bears, under the direction of owner/Head Coach George Halas, were coming off of a subpar 5-6-1 season in 1960. In the offseason, they obtained QB Bill Wade from the Rams and also added TE Mike Ditka, the first round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, to upgrade the passing attack.

There were 32,236 in attendance for the regular season debut of the Vikings. The veteran George Shaw started at quarterback, but didn’t last long as he completed two of three passes for 22 yards and was replaced by the rookie Tarkenton (pictured above). Minnesota scored the only points of the first quarter as Mike Mercer booted a 12-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.

Tarkenton connected with veteran split end Bob Schnelker, once a star with the Giants, for his first touchdown pass (of an eventual career total of 342) from 14 yards out. The Bears responded when FB Rick Casares went up the middle for a three-yard touchdown. The extra point attempt was missed and the score stood at 10-6 in favor of Minnesota at halftime.

The Vikings had difficulty capitalizing on scoring opportunities in the first half, but came alive in the third quarter. In particular, Tarkenton completed 8 of 11 passes during that period. TE Jerry Reichow made two outstanding catches, one for a 29-yard TD and another for 48 yards between defenders CB J.C. Caroline and SS Richie Petitbon that set up a score by McElhenny, who caught the rookie quarterback’s third touchdown pass of the day from two yards out.

To start the fourth quarter, the young scrambler ran two yards around right end for a touchdown. Dave Middleton scored the last Minnesota touchdown on a two-yard throw from Tarkenton, after which the attempted PAT was missed. With the result a foregone conclusion, the Bears finally rounded out the scoring as Wade tossed a 10-yard TD pass to Galimore. The final tally was a shocking 37-13 decision in favor of the Vikings.


While the Bears were guilty of some sloppy play, Minnesota’s defense played very well and Rip Hawkins (pictured at left), DT Jim Prestel, and DE Jim Marshall were the most noteworthy performers. Hawkins in particular distinguished himself as the leader of the unit.

The Vikings gained a total of 336 yards, to 270 for Chicago, although the Bears had the edge in first downs (20 to 17). However, the Bears turned the ball over five times while the newcomers suffered just one turnover.

Fran Tarkenton was the star of the game on offense, completing 17 of 23 passes for 250 yards with four touchdowns and none intercepted. Hugh McElhenny (pictured below), who rushed for 25 yards on 6 carries, had the most pass receptions for the Vikings with 6, for 54 yards and a TD. Jerry Reichow gained 103 yards on his three catches. FB Mel Triplett was the club’s leading rusher with a yard more than McElhenny, gaining 26 on 8 attempts.


For the Bears, Bill Wade was good on 6 of 10 passes for 109 yards and a TD while having two picked off; QB Ed Brown threw 7 passes and completed just two for 37 yards with two interceptions. Willie Galimore ran the ball 12 times for 47 yards. Flanker Johnny Morris caught 4 passes for 92 yards. Mike Ditka, in his first regular season game, contributed one reception for 18 yards.

Both head coaches, Norm Van Brocklin and George Halas, called Tarkenton’s performance the greatest debut ever by a rookie quarterback.

“Tarkenton is going to be a great quarterback,” Coach Van Brocklin enthused after the game. “The team moves for him. His greatest asset is the way he moves around looking for a target. That draws the defense in and then he throws to an open receiver.”

While friction would eventually develop between Van Brocklin and Tarkenton, at least during the 1961 season there was relative harmony and the rookie completed 56.1 percent of his 280 passes for 1997 yards with 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions; his scrambling ability kept him from taking a beating behind a mediocre offensive line and he ran for 308 yards on 56 carries that included five TDs.

The opening win by the Vikings was followed by seven straight defeats and they ended up at the bottom of the Western Conference with a 3-11 tally. Chicago recovered from the first-week shellacking to go 8-6 and finish in a tie for third place in the conference with the Baltimore Colts.

Hugh McElhenny had one last Pro Bowl season, leading the Vikings with 570 yards rushing, catching 37 passes for 283 more, and returning a punt for a touchdown. For Mike Ditka, the season resulted in a first Pro Bowl selection as he had an outstanding rookie year with 56 receptions for 1076 yards (19.2 avg.) and 12 TDs.