June 29, 2016

Highlighted Year: Bob Cifers, 1946

Back/Punter, Detroit Lions


Age: 26
1st season in pro football
College: Tennessee
Height: 5’11” Weight: 200

Prelude:
With his great speed and jumping ability, Cifers excelled in track & field as well as football in college, where he was a single-wing tailback and also an excellent punter. He entered the military during World War II and played service football before joining the Lions, who had chosen him in the second round of the 1944 NFL draft.

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

Punting
Punts – 30 [8]
Yards – 1369 [7]
Average – 45.6 [1]
Punts blocked – 0
Longest punt – 73 yards

Rushing
Attempts – 8
Yards – 18
Average gain – 2.3
TDs – 0

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 4
Yards – 178
Yards per catch – 44.5
TDs – 4 [6, tied with Jack Ferrante, Frank Liebel & Don Currivan]

Passing
Attempts – 6
Completions – 2
Yards – 24
TD passes – 0
Interceptions – 1

Punt Returns
Returns – 1
Yards – 3
TDs – 0

Scoring
TDs – 4 [19, tied with seven others]         
Points – 24

Lions went 1-10 to finish fifth in the NFL Western Division while ranking at the bottom of the league in fewest yards generated (2146).

Aftermath:
Cifers was traded to Pittsburgh as part of the deal for star tailback Bill Dudley. As a halfback on offense, he rushed for 356 yards in 1947 and 361 in ’48 and as a punter averaged 41.1 and 39.6 yards, respectively. He spent 1949 with Green Bay, his last season. Overall, Cifers rushed for 787 yards on 230 carries (3.4 avg.), caught 12 passes for 296 yards, and averaged 41.4 yards on 161 punts. His 61.75-yard average on four punts against the Bears in 1946 remains the NFL single-game record to date. His older brother Ed also played in the NFL with the Redskins and Bears.

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Highlighted Years features players who were first-team All-League* selections or league* or conference** leaders in the following statistical categories:

Rushing: Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Passing: Yards, Completion Pct., Yards per Attempt, TDs, Rating
Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Scoring: TDs, Points, Field Goals (min. 5)
All-Purpose: Total Yards
Defense: Interceptions, Sacks
Kickoff Returns: Average
Punt Returns: Average
Punting: Average

*Leagues include NFL (1920 to date), AFL (1926), AFL (1936-37), AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974-75), USFL (1983-85)

**NFC/AFC since 1970

June 27, 2016

1983: Bandits Rally to Defeat Gold in Storm-Interrupted Game


The Tampa Bay Bandits were trying to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive in the United States Football League’s first season as they faced the Denver Gold on June 27, 1983.

Coached by the offense-minded Steve Spurrier, the Bandits had broken out to a 4-0 start with 33-year-old veteran QB John Reaves throwing to a fine corps of receivers led by WR Eric Truvillion (pictured above). However, Reaves suffered a broken wrist and, while rookie Jimmy Jordan performed capably in his place, he encountered injury problems as well. The addition of another talented first-year player, RB Gary Anderson, midway through the season helped, but Tampa Bay had trouble winning consistently down the stretch and was 10-6 and fighting the Chicago Blitz and surging Michigan Panthers for dominance in the tough USFL Central Division.

Denver had a 7-9 record in the mediocre Pacific Division. Craig Morton had taken over the coaching reins five weeks before and while the defense was able to keep games close, the offense was unstable at quarterback and prone to turning the ball over.

There were 46,128 fans in attendance for the Monday night game at Tampa Stadium. Less than four minutes into the first quarter, Tampa Bay NT Fred Nordgren intercepted a screen pass by QB Craig Penrose and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown. LB Mike Goedecker ran for a two-point conversion to stake the Bandits to an early 8-0 lead.

Following a three-and-out series by the Gold, the home team moved methodically to a score on offense. John Reaves, making his first appearance since his injury, completed passes to Eric Truvillion down the middle for 23 yards and to TE Lewis Gilbert along the sideline for 22. Following a defensive pass interference penalty, the possession concluded with Gary Anderson running two yards for a TD and Zenon Andrusyshyn kicking the extra point that made it 15-0.

Early in the second quarter, the Gold finally got on the board as the result of a 13-play, 65-yard series kept alive when LB Putt Choate took off for 31 yards on a fake punt. After five consecutive running plays, Penrose, facing fourth down, tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to TE Bob Niziolek. Brian Speelman added the point after.

On Denver’s next possession, the visitors again put together a long drive as they advanced 69 yards in 13 plays. While they lost Penrose to a hip pointer, backup QB Fred Mortensen’s first pass was good for a 24-yard gain that set up a touchdown on RB Harry Sydney’s one-yard plunge for a TD. The try for a two-point conversion failed but the Gold was only two points down at 15-13 with 7:18 remaining in the first half.

That was it until, after CB David Martin of the Gold intercepted a pass at the Tampa Bay 45 with just under a minute remaining, Speelman kicked a 41-yard field goal with 17 seconds left on the clock and Denver took a 16-15 lead into halftime.

Jimmy Jordan replaced Reaves at quarterback for the Bandits in the third quarter, but his first pass was picked off and the Gold took advantage, moving 44 yards to another scoring carry by Sydney, this time covering two yards. With Speelman’s conversion, the visitors were up by 23-15.

At just under two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Bandits put points on the board, this time on a 47-yard Andrusyshyn field goal that made it a 23-18 contest. Tampa Bay had the ball again when a storm erupted with heavy rain and lightning, forcing a 50-minute delay in the action with 8:31 left in regulation. On the second play after the game resumed, Jordan threw to Truvillion for a 44-yard touchdown. Up by a point, the home team got two more when RB Greg Boone ran for the conversion.

There was still plenty of time, but Denver turned the ball over on its next series when RB Larry Canada fumbled and CB Jeff George recovered for the Bandits. It was also George who finally put the game away with an interception of a Mortensen pass , to the joy of the remaining Tampa Bay faithful in the stands. The Bandits came away with a 26-23 win.

Tampa Bay had the edge in total yards (283 to 263) while the Gold led in time of possession (35:37 to 24:23) and first downs were even at 16 apiece. Denver was hurt by five turnovers, with the two late ones preventing a fourth quarter comeback, and was penalized 9 times at a cost of 79 yards. The Bandits turned the ball over three times and drew five flags for 55 yards.

In his return to action, John Reaves completed 7 of 13 passes for 72 yards and gave up two interceptions. Jimmy Jordan was 9 of 12 for 131 yards in relief, with a touchdown as well as an interception. Gary Anderson led the Bandits in rushing with 48 yards on 15 carries that included a TD and also caught 5 passes for 36 yards. Eric Truvillion gained 94 yards on his three pass receptions that included the game-winning touchdown.

For the Gold, Craig Penrose was successful on 7 of 11 throws for just 28 yards and a TD while being picked off once and Fred Mortensen made good on 8 of 14 passes for 81 yards and gave up two interceptions. RB Vincent White led the club with 72 yards on 13 rushing attempts while Larry Canada, who ran 8 times for 24 yards, topped the receivers with 6 receptions for 56 yards. On defense, David Martin intercepted three passes but was also beaten for the game-winning touchdown.

“I knew we would win when it started to rain,” said Tampa Bay’s Coach Spurrier. “That was Banditball weather.”

The Bandits needed help to reach the playoffs but it was not forthcoming as they lost their season finale and Michigan and Chicago won to claim the division title and wild card spots, respectively. Tampa Bay finished third at 11-7. The Gold also lost in the last week to place third in the Pacific Division with a 7-11 tally.

June 24, 2016

Highlighted Year: Terrell Davis, 1997

Running Back, Denver Broncos


Age: 25 (Oct. 28)
3rd season in pro football & with Broncos
College: Georgia
Height: 5’11” Weight: 200

Prelude:
Unheralded coming out of college, Davis was taken by the Broncos in the sixth round of the 1995 NFL draft and emerged to rush for 1117 yards and catch 49 passes. In 1996 he ran for 1538 yards to lead the AFC and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press as well as being a consensus first-team All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl.

1997 Season Summary
Appeared and started in 15 of 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Rushing
Attempts – 369 [2]
Most attempts, game – 42 (for 207 yds.) at Buffalo 10/26
Yards – 1750 [2, 1st in AFC]
Most yards, game – 215 yards (on 27 carries) vs. Cincinnati 9/21
Average gain – 4.7 [7]
TDs – 15 [1, tied with Karim Abdul-Jabbar]
200-yard rushing games – 2
100-yard rushing games – 10

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 42      
Most receptions, game – 7 (for 70 yds.) at Oakland 10/19
Yards – 287
Most yards, game – 70 (on 7 catches) at Oakland 10/19
Average gain – 6.8
TDs – 0

All-purpose yards – 2030 [4, 1st in AFC]

Scoring
TDs – 15 [2]
2-pt conversions – 3 [1, tied with Cris Carter]
Points – 96 [20, tied with Karim Abdul-Jabbar]

Postseason: 4 G
Rushing attempts – 112
Most rushing attempts, game – 31 vs. Jacksonville, AFC Wild Card playoff
Rushing yards – 581
Most rushing yards, game – 184 vs. Jacksonville, AFC Wild Card playoff
Average gain rushing – 5.2
Rushing TDs – 8
100-yard rushing games – 4

Pass receptions – 8
Most pass receptions, game – 4 vs. Jacksonville, AFC Wild Card playoff
Pass receiving yards – 38
Most pass receiving yards, game – 17 at Kansas City, AFC Divisional playoff
Average yards per reception – 4.8
Pass Receiving TDs – 0

Awards & Honors:
1st team All-NFL: AP, PFWA, Sporting News
1st team All-AFC: Pro Football Weekly
Pro Bowl

Broncos went 12-4 to finish second in the AFC West and qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card while leading the NFL in total yards (5872), touchdowns (55), and scoring (472 points). Won AFC Wild Card playoff over Jacksonville Jaguars (42-17), AFC Divisional playoff over Kansas City Chiefs (14-10), AFC Championship over Pittsburgh Steelers (24-21) & Super Bowl over Green Bay Packers (31-24).

Aftermath:
Davis rushed for 2008 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1998 and received consensus league MVP honors while the Broncos repeated as NFL Champions. But after rushing for 6413 yards in four years, Davis gained just 211 yards on the ground in ‘99 as he sustained a major knee injury in the fourth game. Returning in 2000, he struggled, appearing in only five contests and rushing for 282 yards. Davis ran for 701 yards in one last injury-riddled season in 2001. For his career, he gained 7607 yards on 1655 carries and added another 1280 yards on 169 pass receptions. Davis was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection three times and was selected to as many Pro Bowls in his short but productive career.

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Highlighted Years features players who were first-team All-League* selections or league* or conference** leaders in the following statistical categories:

Rushing: Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Passing: Yards, Completion Pct., Yards per Attempt, TDs, Rating
Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Scoring: TDs, Points, Field Goals (min. 5)
All-Purpose: Total Yards
Defense: Interceptions, Sacks
Kickoff Returns: Average
Punt Returns: Average
Punting: Average

*Leagues include NFL (1920 to date), AFL (1926), AFL (1936-37), AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974-75), USFL (1983-85)

**NFC/AFC since 1970

June 22, 2016

Highlighted Year: Toni Fritsch, 1975

Placekicker, Dallas Cowboys





Age: 30
5th season in pro football (4th active) & with Cowboys
College: None
Height: 5’7”   Weight: 195

Prelude:
Fritsch starred at soccer in his native Austria, playing for the Rapid Vienna club plus the Austrian national team. Discovered by Cowboys scouts who were touring Europe in search of soccer-style kickers, Fritsch signed a free agent contract and moved to the US. He started the 1971 season on the taxi squad but was activated at midseason, and while he kicked a game-winning field goal in his NFL debut, a subsequent pulled hamstring had him sharing the kicking duties with Mike Clark. The gregarious Fritsch followed up in ’72 by connecting on 21 of 36 field goal attempts and all 36 of his tries for extra points and in 1973 he led the league as he made good on all 43 PAT attempts and was successful on 18 of 28 field goals. Fritsch missed the entire 1974 season due to a knee injury but returned in ’75 and reclaimed his job.

1975 Season Summary
Appeared in all 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Kicking
Field goals – 22 [1, tied with Jan Stenerud]
Most field goals, game – 4 vs. LA Rams 9/21
Field goal attempts – 35 [1]
Most field goal attempts, game – 6 vs. LA Rams 9/21
Field goal percentage – 62.9 [13]
PATs – 38 [9]
PAT attempts – 40 [9]
Longest field goal – 43 yards at New England 11/16

Scoring
Field Goals – 22
PATs – 38
Points – 104 [3]

Postseason: 3 G
Field goals – 5
Most field goals, game – 3 at LA Rams, NFC Championship
Field goal attempts – 6
Most field goal attempts, game – 3 at LA Rams, NFC Championship
PATs – 8
Most PATs, game – 4 at LA Rams, NFC Championship
PAT attempts – 8
Longest field goal – 40 yards at LA Rams, NFC Championship

Awards & Honors:
2nd team All-NFC: UPI

Cowboys went 10-4 to finish second in the NFC East and qualified as a Wild Card for the postseason while leading the conference in rushing yards (2432) and total yards (5025). Won NFC Divisional playoff over Minnesota Vikings (17-14) & NFC Championship over Los Angeles Rams (37-7). Lost Super Bowl to Pittsburgh Steelers (21-17).  

Aftermath:
Following an inconsistent preseason in 1976, Fritsch was traded to San Diego and lasted for five games before being released. He joined the Houston Oilers just prior to the ’77 season and bounced back with 12 field goals in 16 tries, good for a NFL-leading 75.0 %. Fritsch spent five seasons with the Oilers and twice more led the league in field goal percentage while also garnering consensus first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl honors in 1979. Beaten out by Florian Kempf in the 1982 preseason, he joined the New Orleans Saints, where he was reunited with ex-Houston coach Bum Phillips, and retired following the season. However, he returned to pro football with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL in 1984 and topped the circuit in field goal percentage in both ’84 (80.8) and ’85 (87.5), his last two pro seasons. In the NFL, Fritsch was good on 157 of 231 field goal attempts (68.0%) and, adding 287 PATs, scored 758 points. Of those totals, 66 field goals out of 107 tries and 119 PATs, for a total of 317 points, came with the Cowboys. In the postseason, he booted 20 field goals in 25 tries, setting a NFL record by kicking at least one in 13 straight playoff games, and made good on all 26 of his PATs. In the USFL, he was successful on 42 of 50 field goals and added 126 extra points for 252 total points. Fritsch was a first-team All-NFL choice once, received second-team honors after one other season, and was selected to one Pro Bowl. He also received first-team All-USFL recognition in 1984.

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Highlighted Years features players who were consensus first-team All-League* selections or league* or conference** leaders in the following statistical categories:

Rushing: Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Passing: Yards, Completion Pct., Yards per Attempt, TDs, Rating
Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Scoring: TDs, Points, Field Goals (min. 5)
All-Purpose: Total Yards
Defense: Interceptions, Sacks
Kickoff Returns: Average
Punt Returns: Average
Punting: Average

*Leagues include NFL (1920 to date), AFL (1926), AFL (1936-37), AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974-75), USFL (1983-85)

**NFC/AFC since 1970

June 20, 2016

1983: Last-Minute Field Goal Propels Panthers Past Federals


The Michigan Panthers were fighting for a playoff spot in the inaugural United States Football League season as they hosted the Washington Federals on June 20, 1983. The Federals had defeated Michigan early in the season, but the Panthers had undergone changes that improved their fortunes since then.

Coached by Jim Stanley, Michigan got off to a 1-4 start (including the loss at Washington) before veteran additions to the offensive line helped fuel a turnaround that had the club at 9-6 and a game behind Chicago and Tampa Bay in the USFL’s Central Division. Unheralded rookie QB Bobby Hebert was fast developing into a star and WR Anthony Carter (pictured above), the high-priced first year player out of Michigan, had overcome a slow start to become a potent deep threat. The running game was sound and the defense formidable.

The Federals, under Head Coach Ray Jauch, were far less successful and had won only one other contest thus far to linger at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a league-worst 2-13 record. There was an outstanding rookie in RB Craig James and first-year QB Mike Hohensee was able when healthy, but he was out for the rematch with the Panthers and veteran NFL backup Kim McQuilken was filling in. 

There were 26,418 fans in attendance for the Monday night game at the Pontiac Silverdome. Early in the first quarter, the Panthers advanced into Washington territory and Bobby Hebert threw to Anthony Carter, who split two defenders on the way to a 37-yard touchdown. Novo Bojovic added the extra point.

On their next possession, the Panthers again moved well. Hebert completed passes to Carter for 20 and 10 yards, but after gaining a first down inside the Washington 10, the Federals were able to keep them out of the end zone thanks to good plays by LB Joe Harris and CB Jeff Brown. Michigan had to settle for a 19-yard Bojovic field goal.

Down 10-0, the Federals put together a good drive. McQuilken tossed passes to WR Mike Harris, Craig James, and RB Billy Taylor and, facing third-and-one at the Michigan four, he faked a handoff and threw to a wide-open Taylor in the end zone for a TD. Sandro Vitiello missed the point after but the score was narrowed to 10-6.

Washington’s next series resulted in a punt from deep in its own territory. DE Ronnie Paggett partially blocked the kick and Carter returned it to the Federals’ 14. A pass interference call and throw from Hebert to Carter that covered 10 yards set up a one-yard touchdown carry by RB John Williams. Bojovic converted and the Panthers were ahead by 17-6 with 1:12 remaining in the half. The second quarter scoring was not yet over, however, as the Federals were able to get past midfield and, on the final play before halftime, Vitiello booted a field goal from 51 yards that made it 17-9.

Early in the third quarter, Washington got a break on defense when TE Mike Cobb fumbled after catching a pass from Hebert and SS Doug Greene recovered the loose ball and ran 35 unmolested yards for a TD. A try for a two-point conversion that would have tied the score failed, but Michigan’s lead was narrowed to 17-15.

The Federals pulled off a successful onside kick but turned the ball over on a Taylor fumble three plays later. Michigan took advantage, driving to a one-yard run for a TD by RB Ken Lacy, and Bojovic added the extra point. Washington responded with a 74-yard possession that featured the running of James and RB Curtis Bledsoe and resulted in a one-yard scoring carry by James with 6:48 to go in the period. This time Vitiello made good on the point after to again make it a two-point contest at 24-22.

That was it for the scoring until the fourth quarter when Vitiello came through on a 45-yard field goal that gave the visitors a narrow 25-24 advantage. But with their backs to the wall, the Panthers put together a 73-yard drive. With 18 seconds left on the clock, Bojovic kicked an 18-yard field goal that provided the final margin in Michigan’s 27-25 win.

The Panthers led in total yards (335 to 285) while Washington had the edge in first downs (17 to 16) and time of possession (31:13 to 28:47). Each team turned the ball over twice while Michigan recorded four sacks, to none by the Federals.

Bobby Hebert completed 13 of 21 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown as well as an interception. Anthony Carter had 5 catches for 94 yards and a TD. Ken Lacy rushed for 81 yards on 22 carries that included a touchdown and John Williams added 59 yards on 16 attempts that also included a score.


For the Federals, Kim McQuilken was successful on 19 of 27 throws for 158 yards and a TD without giving up an interception. Craig James (pictured above) gained 89 yards on 13 rushing attempts and also had 7 pass receptions for 63 yards.

The win kept the Panthers even with the Bandits, who lost, and they ultimately finished atop the Central Division at 12-6 (Chicago ended up with the lone Wild Card spot and Tampa Bay finished third and missed the postseason). Michigan handily defeated the Oakland Invaders in the Semifinal playoff round and then edged the Philadelphia Stars to win the initial USFL Championship. The hard-luck Federals managed to win twice more and were 4-14.

June 18, 2016

Highlighted Year: Horace Gillom, 1951

End/Punter, Cleveland Browns


Age: 30
5th season in pro football & with Browns
College: Nevada-Reno
Height: 6’1”   Weight: 220

Prelude:
Gillom starred at Massillon, Ohio’s Washington High School under Head Coach Paul Brown and followed his coach to Ohio State in 1941, but left to go into the army during World War II. Gillom enrolled at Nevada after his discharge in 1946 and joined the Browns of the AAFC in ‘47, reuniting with Coach Brown. He backed up at end on both offense and defense and made his biggest mark as a punter. Gillom‘s high, booming kicks were noted for their hang time, and he lined up 15 yards behind center, rather than the 10 to 12 that was typical during that era, thus further helping the coverage unit. His average was 44.6 yards on 47 punts as a rookie and he had his best seasons for pass receiving in 1948, with 20 catches for 295 yards (14.8 avg.) and a TD and 23 for 359 yards (15.6 avg.) in ’49, the AAFC’s last year. In 1950, his first NFL season, Gillom punted 66 times for a 43.2-yard average.

1951 Season Summary
Appeared in all 12 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Punting
Punts – 73 [2, tied with Joe Geri]
Yards – 3321 [1]
Average – 45.5 [1]
Punts blocked – 0
Longest punt – 66 yards

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 11
Yards – 164
Yards per catch – 14.9
TDs – 0

Kickoff Returns
Returns – 2
Yards – 25
Average per return – 12.5
TDs – 0
Longest return – 15 yards

Scoring
TDs – 1         
Points – 6

Postseason: 1G (NFL Championship at LA Rams)
Punts – 4
Yards – 148
Average – 37.0
Longest punt – 38 yards

Browns went 11-1 to finish first in the NFL American Conference. Lost NFL Championship to Los Angeles Rams (24-17).

Aftermath:
Gillom led the NFL in punting again in 1952, averaging 45.7 yards, when he was also chosen for the Pro Bowl. He spent a total of ten seasons with the Browns, until being waived in 1956, and averaged 43.1 yards on 492 punts. Of that, 107 punts for a 40.5-yard average were in the AAFC and 385 for a 43.8 average came in the NFL. He also caught a total of 74 passes for 1003 yards (14.6 avg.) and three touchdowns (AAFC: 45 for 678 yards and a TD, NFL: 29 for 405 yards and two scores).

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Highlighted Years features players who were first-team All-League* selections or league* or conference** leaders in the following statistical categories:

Rushing: Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Passing: Yards, Completion Pct., Yards per Attempt, TDs, Rating
Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Scoring: TDs, Points, Field Goals (min. 5)
All-Purpose: Total Yards
Defense: Interceptions, Sacks
Kickoff Returns: Average
Punt Returns: Average
Punting: Average

*Leagues include NFL (1920 to date), AFL (1926), AFL (1936-37), AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974-75), USFL (1983-85)

**NFC/AFC since 1970

June 16, 2016

Highlighted Year: Tommy Casanova, 1976

Safety, Cincinnati Bengals


Age: 26
5th season in pro football & with Bengals
College: LSU
Height: 6’2”   Weight: 194

Prelude:
The versatile Casanova saw action on both offense and defense in college, as well as returning kicks, and despite injuries, he received consensus All-American honors as a defensive back in 1970 and ’71. Casanova was chosen by the Bengals in the second round of the 1972 NFL draft and moved directly into the starting lineup at free safety, intercepting five passes while also returning 30 punts for a 9.6-yard average that included a touchdown. He missed five games due to injury in ’73, although still intercepted four passes, but came back to gain a Pro Bowl selection in 1974. Casanova was shifted to strong safety in ’75 and received first-team All-AFC honors from the Associated Press.

1976 Season Summary
Appeared in 11 of 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Interceptions – 5 [17, tied with six others]
Most interceptions, game – 1 on five occasions
Int. return yards – 109 [9]
Most int. return yards, game – 33 (on 1 int.) vs. Green Bay 9/26
Int. TDs – 2 [2, tied with Prentice McCray, Jim Merlo & John Rowser]
Fumble recoveries – 1
Fumble recovery TDs – 1

Punt Returns
Returns – 10
Yards – 45
Average per return – 4.5
TDs – 0
Longest return – 15 yards

Scoring
TDs – 3
Points – 18

Awards & Honors:
1st team All-NFL: AP
2nd team All-NFL: PFWA, NEA
1st team All-AFC: AP, UPI, Pro Football Weekly
Pro Bowl

Bengals went 10-6 to finish second in the AFC Central while leading the conference in interceptions (26).

Aftermath:
Casanova had another Pro Bowl season in 1977 but, having started medical school while playing football, he retired to complete his degree and go into medicine. Overall, Casanova started 65 games for the Bengals and intercepted 17 passes, two of which he ran back for touchdowns. He also scored on a fumble recovery. As a punt returner, he averaged 8.6 yards on 91 returns with one TD. He was a consensus first-team All-NFL choice once, received first- or second-team All-AFC recognition after three other seasons, and was chosen to three Pro Bowls. In addition to practicing medicine as an ophthalmologist, Casanova also went on to serve in the Louisiana state senate.

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Highlighted Years features players who were first-team All-League* selections or league* or conference** leaders in the following statistical categories:

Rushing: Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Passing: Yards, Completion Pct., Yards per Attempt, TDs, Rating
Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Scoring: TDs, Points, Field Goals (min. 5)
All-Purpose: Total Yards
Defense: Interceptions, Sacks
Kickoff Returns: Average
Punt Returns: Average
Punting: Average

*Leagues include NFL (1920 to date), AFL (1926), AFL (1936-37), AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974-75), USFL (1983-85)

**NFC/AFC since 1970

June 13, 2016

Highlighted Year: Mike Ditka, 1962

Tight End, Chicago Bears


Age: 23 (Oct. 18)
2nd season in pro football & with Bears
College: Pittsburgh
Height: 6’3”   Weight: 230

Prelude:
Ditka was a three-sport athlete in college (baseball and basketball were the others). He led the team in pass receiving three times and was a consensus first-team All-American as a senior. Ditka also played linebacker and defensive end with distinction and punted, setting the tone for his later pro career with his competitive fury and hard-nosed playing style as well as being a skillful performer. He was chosen by the Bears with the fifth overall pick in the first round of the 1961 NFL draft (he was chosen by the Houston Oilers of the AFL, also in the first round) and quickly became a key player on offense at tight end with his ability as a receiver as well as blocker. He caught 56 passes for 1076 yards (19.2 avg.) and 12 touchdowns in ’61 and, in addition to receiving Rookie of the Year honors from UPI and The Sporting News, was also a first-team All-NFL selection of NEA and The Sporting News and was chosen to the Pro Bowl.

1962 Season Summary
Appeared in all 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 58 [5, tied with Tommy McDonald & Johnny Morris]    
Most receptions, game – 8 (for 132 yds.) vs. San Francisco 10/14
Yards – 904 [10]
Most yards, game – 155 (on 6 catches) vs. LA Rams 12/9
Average gain – 15.6 [19]
TDs – 5 [18, tied with five others]
100-yard receiving games - 4

Scoring
TDs – 6
Points – 36

Awards & Honors:
1st team All-NFL: UPI, NEA
2nd team All-NFL: AP
1st team All-Western Conference: Sporting News
Pro Bowl

Bears went 9-5 to finish third in the NFL Western Conference.   

Aftermath:
Ditka was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the next three seasons and was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection in 1963, when the Bears won the NFL Championship, and ’64, when he caught a career-high 75 passes. He did much to define the newly-evolved position of tight end with his outstanding combination of skills. After a contract dispute fouled his relations with Chicago’s owner and head coach, George Halas, Ditka was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1967, but accumulated wear-and-tear caused his production to drop off during two injury-plagued seasons. After catching 316 passes for 4503 yards and 34 TDs in six years with the Bears, he had just 39 receptions for 385 yards and four TDs in 20 games for the Eagles. Traded again to Dallas, Ditka split time in his last four seasons. He had 30 catches in 1971, a year in which he also caught a touchdown pass in a winning Super Bowl appearance. Ditka retired into coaching after the ’72 season, having caught a total of 427 passes for 5812 yards and 43 TDs. His greatest years came with the Bears, where he was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection twice, received at least second-team recognition after four other seasons, and was named to the Pro Bowl five straight times. He later became head coach of the Bears, leading them to a NFL title in 1985, and also was head coach of the Saints. Ditka’s #89 was retired by the Bears and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1988.

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Highlighted Years features players who were consensus first-team All-League* selections or league* or conference** leaders in the following statistical categories:

Rushing: Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Passing: Yards, Completion Pct., Yards per Attempt, TDs, Rating
Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Scoring: TDs, Points, Field Goals (min. 5)
All-Purpose: Total Yards
Defense: Interceptions, Sacks
Kickoff Returns: Average
Punt Returns: Average
Punting: Average

*Leagues include NFL (1920 to date), AFL (1926), AFL (1936-37), AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974-75), USFL (1983-85)

**NFC/AFC since 1970

June 12, 2016

Highlighted Year: Muhsin Muhammad, 1999

Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers


Age: 26
4th season in pro football & with Panthers
College: Michigan State
Height: 6’2”   Weight: 220

Prelude:
Muhammad caught 50 passes for 867 yards (17.3 avg.) and three touchdowns in 1995, his last college season, and was chosen by the Panthers in the second round of the ’96 NFL draft. While hampered by a hamstring injury as a rookie, he showed promise, catching 25 passes for 407 yards (16.3 avg.) and impressing with his size as well as speed. Following another injury-plagued season in 1997, Muhammad started every game in ’98 and broke out with 68 receptions for 941 yards (13.8 avg.) and six TDs.

1999 Season Summary
Appeared in 15 of 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 96 [3, 1st in NFC]    
Most receptions, game – 11 (for 126 yds.) vs. San Francisco 12/18
Yards – 1253 [7]
Most yards, game – 151 (on 8 catches) at Washington 10/3
Average gain – 13.1
TDs – 8 [12, tied with Az-Zahir Hakim, Kevin Johnson & Keyshawn Johnson]
100-yard receiving games – 5

Scoring
TDs – 8
Points – 48

Awards & Honors:
Pro Bowl

Panthers went 8-8 to finish second in the NFC West while ranking second in the NFL in passing yards (4161) and third in touchdowns (50).

Aftermath:
Muhammad led the NFL with 102 catches in 2000, gaining 1183 yards (11.6 avg.) and scoring six touchdowns. Injuries and off-field problems caused his production to drop off significantly in 2001, but there was improvement in 2002 and ’03, and he had an 85-yard scoring reception in the Super Bowl loss to New England following the latter season. Muhammad had a big year in 2004, leading the NFL with 1405 yards and 16 TDs on his 93 pass receptions and receiving consensus first-team All-NFL honors as well as selection to the Pro Bowl. However, he was released by the Panthers in the offseason due to contract issues and moved on to the Chicago Bears in 2005, where with his diminished speed combining with inconsistency at quarterback, his numbers dropped off. He spent three years with the Bears before returning to Carolina for his last two seasons in 2008 and ’09. Overall, Muhammad caught 860 passes for 11,438 yards (13.3 avg.) and 62 touchdowns. Of those totals, 696 receptions for 9255 yards and 50 TDs came with the Panthers. Muhammad was a first-team All-NFL selection once and was named to two Pro Bowls.

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Highlighted Years features players who were consensus first-team All-League* selections or league* or conference** leaders in the following statistical categories:

Rushing: Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Passing: Yards, Completion Percentage, Yards per Attempt, TDs, Rating
Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Scoring: TDs, Points, Field Goals (min. 5)
All-Purpose: Total Yards
Defense: Interceptions, Sacks
Kickoff Returns: Average
Punt Returns: Average
Punting: Average

*Leagues include NFL (1920 to date), AFL (1926), AFL (1936-37), AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974-75), USFL (1983-85)

**NFC/AFC since 1970

June 9, 2016

1983: Jim Kelly Signs with USFL


The Houston Gamblers, one of the United States Football League’s six expansion franchises for its second season, made a major acquisition on June 9, 1983 as prize QB Jim Kelly from the Univ. of Miami signed a contract.

Kelly had been chosen by the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the NFL draft as part of a much-heralded quarterback class that included Stanford’s John Elway and Dan Marino of Pittsburgh. While contract terms were not released at the time of the signing, it was later revealed to be a five-year fully-guaranteed deal for $3.3 million. While they were at it, the Gamblers also signed Kelly’s roommate at Miami, RB Mark Rush, who had been Minnesota’s fourth-round draft pick (he lasted five games with Houston before being released).

“Kelly is more ready to play pro football than some of the others because of the type of offense he was under in college,” explained Gene Burrough, Houston’s general manager.

Playing under Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger at Miami, who utilized a pro-style passing offense, Kelly set school records for pass completions (376), passing yards (5228), and TD passes (31), but his college career was curtailed when he suffered a separated shoulder against Virginia Tech in the third game of the 1982 season. Already given a clean bill of health, but with the USFL season not set to start until February of 1984, he would have that much more time to fully heal.

While the Gamblers were coached by Jack Pardee, the offensive coordinator was Darrel “Mouse” Davis, architect of the “run-and-shoot” offense at Portland State. Houston lost its opening game, 20-17 to the Tampa Bay Bandits, and Kelly passed for 229 yards and a touchdown while giving up two interceptions. But the following week, on a Monday night, the Gamblers blasted the San Antonio Gunslingers, another first-year club, and Kelly threw for 309 yards and a TD while running for two more. The Gamblers got off to a 3-1 start, stumbled for two losses, and then went on to a 13-5 record that placed first in the Central Division. Moreover, the offense was nothing short of sensational, averaging 34.3 points per game on the way to racking up 618 points, which were 79 more than the runner-up, and scoring 79 touchdowns over the course of 18 games.

Kelly significantly exceeded rookie expectations, topping the circuit in pass attempts (587), completions (370), yards (5219), and touchdowns (44), although also in interceptions (26). In addition, he rushed for 493 yards on 85 carries (5.8 avg.) and five TDs. Two of his receivers, Richard Johnson (115 catches, 1455 yards, 15 TDs) and Ricky Sanders (101 receptions, 1378 yards, 11 TDs) finished first and second in pass receptions. For his efforts, Kelly was a consensus first-team All-USFL selection and was named Player of the Year by the league. That the Gamblers fell short in the first round of the playoffs against the Arizona Wranglers took little luster off of the season of accomplishments.

The Gamblers were without “Mouse” Davis in 1985, who became the head coach of the Denver Gold, but it did not slow down Kelly and the offense. In the opening game against the Los Angeles Express and another heralded young quarterback, Steve Young, Kelly had a remarkable performance in a 34-33 come-from-behind win. His 574 passing yards not only far exceeded the existing USFL record but also the NFL mark of 554 set in 1951 by Norm Van Brocklin of the Rams. He went to the air 54 times, completed 35, and five were good for touchdowns.

Kelly maintained high production through another outstanding season until he was sidelined for the last four games with a knee injury, yet he still topped the USFL in pass attempts (567), completions (360), yards (4623), and TD passes (39). He again received consensus first-team All-USFL honors. And while Kelly returned for the postseason, Houston was once more eliminated in the first round.

The 1985 season proved to be the end of the line for the USFL. A planned move to the autumn in 1986 was aborted when an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL led to a favorable ruling but, essentially, no cash award (one dollar, times three), something that was desperately needed by the USFL. The Gamblers had been merged with the New Jersey Generals during the offseason in a move that was to put Kelly in the same backfield with star RB Herschel Walker, but it was not to be. He left the USFL having thrown for 9842 yards and 83 TDs in just two seasons and 32 games.

Kelly went on to the NFL and the Buffalo Bills, who retained his rights. He stayed with Buffalo for eleven years, passing for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns, and performing well in a fast-paced, no-huddle offense that was similar to the one he had so much success with in the USFL. The club won four straight AFC Championships between 1990 and ’93 and Kelly, who received consensus first-team All-NFL honors once and was chosen to five Pro Bowls, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.    

June 8, 2016

1966: Rams Obtain Irv Cross from Eagles


On June 8, 1966, while the main focus of pro football followers was on the announcement of the AFL-NFL merger, the Philadelphia Eagles parted ways with Pro Bowl CB Irv Cross, who was sent to the Los Angeles Rams for DB Aaron Martin and HB/flanker Willie Brown.

It was the second trade by the Eagles to the Rams of a disgruntled defensive Pro Bowler during the turbulent offseason as discontent rose against Head Coach/GM Joe Kuharich. LB Maxie Baughan’s demand to be sent elsewhere was accommodated several weeks earlier. The 26-year-old Cross had been with the Eagles for five seasons, but threatened to quit unless traded.

Drafted by the Eagles in the seventh round out of Northwestern in 1961, Cross was thrust into the starting lineup when star CB Tom Brookshier suffered a broken leg in the eighth game. He intercepted two passes, recovered two fumbles, and suffered three concussions during the season. Cross remained in the starting lineup in 1962 and showed improvement as he intercepted five passes. By 1964, he was chosen to the Pro Bowl for the first of two consecutive seasons and was noted for his tackling ability as well as coverage skills. Thus far with the Eagles, he had intercepted 15 passes, one of which he returned for a 94-yard touchdown. He also was Philadelphia’s primary kick returner in ’65, running back 25 kickoffs for a 26.5-yard average and 14 punts at a 5.6-yard rate.

As for the players the Eagles received for Cross, Willie Brown was 24 and a third-year player who was drafted by the Rams in the third round in 1964 out of USC. He had primarily been used to return kicks and, as a halfback, rushed for 133 yards on 44 carries in ‘65. The Eagles had hopes of using him as a flanker. Aaron Martin, also 24, went undrafted out of North Carolina College and was signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 1964, who tried him on offense, but was released during the preseason after which the Rams picked him up. He started the ’65 season at cornerback and intercepted two passes before suffering a broken left arm in the fourth game that sidelined him for the remainder of the year.

The Rams, coming off of a 4-10 record (their seventh straight losing season) had a new head coach in the defense-minded George Allen, formerly an assistant under George Halas with the Bears (who did not let him go without a court battle). Allen inherited an excellent defensive line but the remainder of the unit needed bolstering. The addition of Baughan at outside linebacker was a plus and it was hoped that Cross could help in a defensive backfield that had one star in FS Ed Meador and inexperienced players at the other positions. 

Cross proved to be a good fit at right cornerback for the Rams, who improved to 8-6 in their first year under Coach Allen. He paired up well with young CB Clancy Williams on the other side and, while he intercepted only one pass, he returned it 60 yards for a touchdown, and continued to impress with his tackling.

Cross was with Los Angeles for three seasons, and with the outstanding defense leading the way, the Rams went 11-1-2 in 1967, reaching the postseason for the first time since 1955, and 10-3-1 in ’68. He intercepted a total of six passes and was also used to return kicks, averaging 7.5 yards running back 29 punts and 30.1 yards on 16 kickoff returns.

Cross was traded back to the Eagles in 1969 in the deal that brought All-Pro OT Bob Brown to LA. He was a player/coach in his final season, and after retiring as a player was an assistant coach in 1970 before moving to the broadcast booth. He became a fixture on "The NFL Today" on CBS from 1975 to ’89.  

As for the Eagles, the result of the transaction was disappointing. Willie Brown lasted one year with the club, catching no passes and returning a handful of kicks with mediocre results. Aaron Martin spent two seasons with Philadelphia, intercepted two passes and returned a punt for a touchdown, but was nothing special in the defensive backfield.

June 6, 2016

Highlighted Year: Steve Christie, 1998

Placekicker, Buffalo Bills


Age: 31 (Nov. 13)
9th season in pro football, 7th with Bills
College: William & Mary
Height: 6’0”   Weight: 185

Prelude:
A native of Canada, Christie was a highly-sought soccer prospect coming out of high school but was recruited by William & Mary to be a kicker. He set school records for field goals (57), field goal percentage (68.7), and points (279) and was also an accomplished punter. For his efforts, he was a three-time All-ECAC selection. Undrafted out of college, Christie joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1990 and was successful on 23 of 27 field goal attempts. He received first-team All-NFC honors from UPI and Pro Football Weekly. After a second season with the Bucs, he signed with the Bills as a free agent in 1992. Christie connected on 24 of 30 field goal attempts in 1992 and was 9-of-10 in his first postseason, which included the game-winning kick in the dramatic come-from-behind win over the Oilers in the Wild Card round and five in the AFC Championship against Miami. A lesser year in ’93 was followed by his career high for field goal percentage (85.7) in 1994 as he made good on 24 of 28 attempts and kicked a Super Bowl-record 54-yard field goal in the postseason. He remained consistent and in 1997 was 24-of-30 on field goals (80 %) and was successful all 21 of his extra point attempts.

1998 Season Summary
Appeared in all 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Kicking
Field goals – 33 [3]
Most field goals, game – 4 vs. San Francisco 10/4, at NY Jets 11/8, at Cincinnati 12/6
Field goal attempts – 41 [1]
Most field goal attempts, game – 5 vs. San Francisco 10/4
Field goal percentage – 80.5 [16]
PATs – 41 [7, tied with Ryan Longwell & Todd Peterson]
PAT attempts – 41 [8, tied with Todd Peterson]
Longest field goal – 52 yards at Cincinnati 12/6

Scoring
Field Goals – 33
PATs – 41
Points – 140 [2, 1st in AFC]

Postseason: 1 G (AFC Wild Card playoff at Miami)
Field goals – 1
Field goal attempts – 1
PATs – 2
PAT attempts – 2
Longest field goal – 33 yards

Bills went 10-6 to finish third in the AFC East and qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card. Lost AFC Wild Card playoff to Miami Dolphins (24-17).  

Aftermath:
Christie spent two more seasons with Buffalo for a total of nine before a preseason groin injury in 2001 led to his being placed on injured-reserve and then released. He departed the Bills having achieved franchise records with 234 field goals out of 299 attempts (78.3 %) and 309 extra points, with four misses, for a total of 1011 points. Christie joined the San Diego Chargers during the 2001season and stayed on for another two years before finishing his career with the Giants in 2004. Overall, Christie was successful on 336 of 431 field goal attempts (78.0 %) and 468 of 473 PATs for a total of 1476 points.

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Highlighted Years features players who were consensus first-team All-League* selections or league* or conference** leaders in the following statistical categories:

Rushing: Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Passing: Yards, Completion Pct., Yards per Attempt, TDs, Rating
Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs (min. 10)
Scoring: TDs, Points, Field Goals (min. 5)
All-Purpose: Total Yards
Defense: Interceptions, Sacks
Kickoff Returns: Average
Punt Returns: Average
Punting: Average

*Leagues include NFL (1920 to date), AFL (1926), AFL (1936-37), AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974-75), USFL (1983-85)

**NFC/AFC since 1970