Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Rush Linebackers

By John Turney
Cornelius Bennett began his rookie season late due to a holdout. He was drafted by the Colts but did not sign. He was involved in the Eric Dickerson three-team trade and ended in Buffalo. He played in eight games and recorded 8.5 sacks and forced five fumbles. It was as impactful a season as a rush backer could have. (Lawrence Taylor had 9.5 sacks in 1981 in 16 games). Bennett played more of a hybrid role, some as a traditional 3-4 linebacker, some as an inside linebacker and usually was the left defensive end (opposite Bruce Smith) in the Bills nickel defenses.
From 1982 to present
Mario Williams had been moved to OLBer in 2011 and was off to a good start before he was hurt and missed the final 11 games. He was also a defensive end in the Texans nickel in a hybrid role in Wade Phillips's defense.

Kevin Greene was a nickel rusher in 1987 though he'd also spell Mel Owens and Mike Wilcher, the starting 304 outside linebackers. Owens, in 1988, was a big part of the Rams "Eagle 5 LBer defense" playing, essentially the spot Wilbur Marshall played when the Bears used their famed 46 defense.

Otis Wilson and LaMarr Woodley were on pace for possible career highs in 1987 and 2011, respectively. We included all seasons that projected to eight sacks or more. Some may have been enough to be a Pro Bowl season for the respective players, some not, depending on the competition year-to-year. Urlacher, of course, was a middle 'backer and Adalius Thomas was a multi-role player for the Patriots. Chad Brown made the list twice, in 2002 and in 1995. With the Steelers, he was unique as a rush backer. He'd play inside linebacker in the base and right defensive end, with his hand down in their nickel. Johnie Cooks was supposed to be a Lawrence Taylor-type player, but never measure up to those lofty-standard (who did?) although he had good seasons in 1983 and 1984.

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Defensive Backs

By John Turney

During this project, we learned quite a bit, but one specific thing was we'd not noticed that Mel Renfro (1967), Larry Wilson (1965), and Lem Barney (1975) all missed significant time. All three had good interception totals and all three DID make the Pro Bowl. As did Ed Reed in 2010 and Sean Taylor in 2007 but those two we knew about. Wilson and Renfro were on pace for double-digits in picks. We'd also never noticed that Bobby Bryant missed four games in 1969.
Atop this list is Kirk Collins a player who earned a starting position in 1983 after a couple of years playing special teams and some dime back. He picked off five passes in four games and while returning one 58 yards he pulled a hamstring. While being examined by doctors, routinely as it happens, a tumor was discovered in his throat. That turned out to be malignant cancer and it ended his season. And his life. In 1984 the Rams wore a sticker of Collins's number on their helmets as a tribute to him. Had this odd turn not happened he may have been able to reach double-digits in picks if he'd pilfered just five more over the next 12 games. Likely teams would have thrown away from him as he established his bona fides so he may not have had the opportunity, but teams kept throwing Lester Hayes's way in 1980 so who knows?

Jeff Fuller only played six games and was a hybrid nickel/back linebacker type player. In those six games in 1986, he picked off four passes and had 2.5 sacks. It would have been great to see a sub- defense player making those kinds of plays for a full season. He was on pace for 11 interceptions and 6.5 sacks.

Chuck Allen was a linebacker and if he'd finished the season on the same pace he'd established in 1961 he'd have totaled 9 picks which would be a record for linebackers. (In this exercise we grouped defensive backs and linebackers together).

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Defensive Linemen

By John Turney

Certainly, we cannot know what Antwan Odom might have done had he been able to finish the 2009 season. We are not suggesting he would have reached the 21½ sacks he was on pace for, but we are suggesting that had he played in the final ten games he likely would have sacked opposing quarterbacks with enough frequency to warrant a Pro Bowl selection. Would he have had 12? 15? More? Eight sacks in six games a five-sack game against Aaron Rodgers was causing Odom to gain some national attention. However, an Achilles injury scrapped all those possibilities and ended Odom's career, though he came back in 2010 he was not the same and he was released by the Bengals and no other team signed him.
From 1982-present
Robert Young is in the same boat as Odom. He had a fast start in 1993 and then a knee injury finished his season. Again, it's not likely Young would have had 18½ sacks, but certainly, double-digits were possible. He came back in 1994 and started all 16 games and had 6½ sacks, fewer than the season before in ten more games. In 1995 he lost his job to Kevin Carter and was relegated to a backup role and got a shot with the Oilers in 1996 and he started the entire season and had 4 sacks, It seems 1993 was his chance to break through but a knee injury ended that.

Mark Gastineau, in 1988, was having a comeback season of sorts when he abruptly retired. He said it was because his fiancee had cancer. Gastineau was leading the AFC in sacks with seven in seven games at the time (he'd only had 6½ in the previous 25 games) and the Jets were pleased with his performance. The poof, he's gone. There were rumors that he'd tested positive for steroids and that a suspension was looming, though never proven in terms of a specific test in 1988 but Gastineau has admitted to steroid use during his career. To be fair, Gastineau was not alone in steriod use among NFL linemen in that era. 

Osi Umenyiora and Cameron Wake have garnered plenty of honors in their career and 2011 and 2015, respectively would have added one more Pro Bowl to those honors had they not been felled by injuries.

We've listed some other potential Pro Bowl-type shortened seasons, though not all were dominant they held reasonable chances for post-season honors.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Quarterbacks

By John Turney

As a follow-up to the running back post we now add recent quarterbacks. To qualify a quarterback had to average 220 yards a game and start a minimum of five games. We are posting a table of the top 20 (sorted by QB passer rating) and added in Andrew Luck's 2013 season.
(Click to enlarge)

Josh McCown has his 2013 season with the Bears and his 2015 Cleveland Brown season on the list at number one and number 15. Bill Nelson, the Steelers QB had some really good numbers. We tweaked his W-L record and it would have been nice to see what he might have done in a full season.0

Aaron Rodgers's 2013 season would have likely been a typically great season and it should be noted that Brian Griese's 2000 season did result in a Pro Bowl selection.

Marc Bulger was very good in 2002 filling in for Kurt Warner. Not only did he put up numbers he was highly rated by Pro Scout, Inc as a "high blue" for his efforts. Trent Green, in 2000, also filling in for Warner also put up excellent numbers but didn't garner the wins that Bulger did.

Dan Marino's 1993 Achilles tendon rupture stymied what was likely going to be a typical Marino season. The same can be said of Carson Palmer's 2014 season.

Dave Krieg's 1983 partial season was very similar to his 1984 full season. Kreig was not injured, he came off the bench to lead a solid Seattle team to the playoffs and one game away from the Super Bowl. Dan Fouts missed six games in 1983 and like Griese was voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers. Sam Bradford was off to a good start in 2013 when he tore his ACL for the first time. He tore it again in 2014 and was shipped off to Philadelphia.

The final 20 is rounded out by Phil Simms, Kurt Warner and John Kitna. For comparison sake, we added Andrew Luck.

We will be taking a closer look at this and adding players who had good half-seasons in the era where it was not common to average 220 or even 200 yards a game. It will take more than a quick search on Pro Football Reference.com (who we thank for their tools) due to some QBs playing in 14 games because they were the holder but only quarterbacking in, say five. (Think Sonny Jurgensen)

So, we will do further posts covering the "dead-ball" era in NFL passing. One note is that it shows how special Bill Nelson's partial 1966 was, to make it onto this list.

Here are the rest who average 220 yards a game or more, again, sorted in order of passer rating and with the projected 16-game totals.
(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Running Backs

By John Turney
Art by GL
Sometimes a player gets off to a tremendous start to an NFL season and then sustains an injury mid-season and that season, remarkable as it may have been, is lost to history. Other times a player may be able to join a team late in the season, perhaps they had been injured the previous year and are healthy for a stretch of a season. These seasons rarely result in a player getting post-season honors like All-Pro or Pro Bowl and for good reason, it's almost always better to chose a player who played the majority of a season than someone who played less than two-thirds or who played half.

Here is a table of some seasons that fit the above profile. We went back to the 1960s and will do a separate post about the pre-1960 era at some point. The highlighted column is the respective player's yards projected to a 16-game season. Also note that three of these—Gale Sayers, Floyd Little and Barry Foster all WERE Pro Bowl selections for their seasons on the table.

Priest Holmes and Edgerrin James were off to potential career years in 2004 and 2001 when felled by injury. Ricky Williams was on pace for a 2000-yards-from-scrimmage season in 2000. Terrell Davis was on pace for a 1400-yard season in 2001 and Billy Sims's devastating knee injury in 1984 was the end of his career. Fred Jackson, in 2011, might have cracked the 2000 total yard barrier as well.

One historical question:  Had Jim Braxton not been hurt in 1973 would O.J. Simpson carried as heavy a load as he did and not gained his 2003 yards? Braxton was off to a fabulous start averaging 4.6 yards a carry

we cut this list off at 75 yards rushing per game, so the season total would project to 1200 yards. Certainly, there are lots of seasons that would likely have been 1000-yarders by running backs had we cut that off lower. Maybe next time we'll do that.

Hat tip to Pro Football Reference for the search engine that helped in this project.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The 1979 Rams "Dollar" Defense

By John Turney
PFJ Illustration

As with designated pass rushers or nickel backs (not the band) it would be difficult to exactly pinpoint when a facet of the NFL was first introduced. We will explore nickel and dime backs in the near future but today we want to explore something fairly recent in NFL terms:  The 'Dollar' defense of the 1979 Rams, which was seven defensive backs behind four defensive lineman.

The following are pages from the Rams defensive manual.

As it notes the coverages for the Dollar and Dime are the same as the nickel. The positioning of the two DBs (LBers) would vary according to the offensive formation, the Rams defensive line front and the coverage and call (if it was a dog (blitz, the Rams terminology was a 'dog' was a LBer rush a 'blitz' was a defensive back rush).

Another interesting note is that among the coverages is one that is called "Cover 22". While it may not be a familiar term, in today's NFL it would be called "Tampa-2".

In entails the nickel back (in this case from 1978-81 it was Nolan Cromwell) to play the middle linebacker spot and his coverage was the "hole"—the middle zone that extends into the deep middle in between the deep safeties who had the deep halves. Cronwell would be responsible for a receiver running up the middle. Jack Reynolds, a great run defender, just would not have been able to play this coverage like some of those linebackers Tony Dungy had in Tampa so it was regulated to nickel with the Rams in the Reynolds era.

Said Cromwell recently, "Ray Malavasi's defense was ahead if it's time, it had an answer for everything. NFL Defenses are often recycled but yes, the Cover-22 is the same as the Tampa-2 in terms of coverage assignments."

Here is a screenshot of the 1979 Rams-Cowboys playoff game and you can see the deployment of the secondary versus the Dallas spread.

After the December 31, 1979, divisional playoff game versus the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas coach Tom Landry said, "LA has played seven defensive backs against us before. They just have some talented backs there and you have to find the hole. They mixed things up on us and tried to keep us off balance. And they were hitting well on defense."

What he was speaking about was the Rams nickel defense that employed two defensive backs as linebackers and the Rams playbook called it "dollar" personnel, as opposed to the standard "nickel" for five defensive backs and "dime" for six DBs.

Rams coach Ray Malavasi, referring to the dollar defense said, "We tried to match speed with speed. Linebackers don't have the speed of receivers. It was Bud Carson who came up with the idea "He had planned to use it here in October but we had too many defensive guys hurt. It was very effective for us today.".

On likely passing downs Dallas liked to use a "spread" or "shotgun" offense. The had two excellent outside receivers, Tony Hill and Drew Pearson and a very good third wide receiver, Butch Johnson and also two very good situational running backs, Preston Pearson and Ron Springs. Although Tony Dorsett was a good receiver, Pearson would replace him on third downs because was just tougher to cover for most linebackers. Springs was also a good receiver but also a good blocker versus rushing linebackers.

So, the Rams pulled out a wrinkle in their playbook, which had been there for years, and used the seven defensive backs to counter the Dallas spread attack.
When the passing personnel of the Cowboys came into the game, the Rams pulled all three linebackers and brought in Dwayne O'Steen, Ivory Sully, and Eddie Brown. (technically O'Steen started the game at left corner because Pat Thomas was nursing an injury, but early in the game Rod Perry hurt his knee and Thomas came into the game as the left corner and O'Steen moved to right. Later, Perry was ruled by the trainers able to play and he came back into the game and Thomas and Perry, the normal starters, were playing in the base).

O'Steen and Sully would play the linebacker positions, Eddie Brown would play strong safety, Dave Elemdorf would play free safety and Nolan Cromwell would play the slot corner. The Rams were free to use any of their coverages and felt that the front four and O'Steen and Sully would be able to contain the running game that, in these situations, was sans Tony Dorsett.

"I had played nickel some in 1977, but I was the slot corner in 1978 so I'd played it before, but when we went with five defensive backs in 1979 I was the slot corner anyway, so it was nothing new".

Said Cromwell at the time, "We used seven defensive backs today when they were in the shotgun formation that's the only we changed (from game in October) and that way, instead of linebackers on the shotgun formation we had seven defensive backs".

Linebacker Jim Youngblood added, "We had a new nickel defense. We put in seven defensive backs. Yeah, it was very vulnerable to the draw, but we only used it only on third and long situations."

The base defense, even with Jack Youngblood playing on a fractured fibula, was able to bottle up Dorsett and the Cowboys running game just enough to put the Cowboys in third and long quite a bit. Roger Staubach was 13 completions in 28 attempts for 150 yards and one touchdown and one interception (by Eddie Brown) and was sacked one time (by Jack Youngblood in the 4th quarter forcing a punt).

That sack led to Rams getting the ball and allowed the Rams to be in a position to take the lead on a 50-yard touchdown strike from Vince Ferragamo to Billy Waddy putting the Rams ahead 21-19. Dallas then was stopped on their final drive and the Rams won the game by that score.

The Rams used similar defenses after 1979, but usually with six defensive backs and one linebacker. In 1980 and 1981 they had a player named Joe harris who was a smaller, quick linebacker who could cover and blitz and he'd match up with Jeff Delaney or Ivory Sully as the two linebackers. In 1982 George Andrews and Sully were usually the two linebackers in the nickel.  In 1983 the defense changed and it was Fritz Shurmur's 3-4 as a base and Shurmur kept the tradition alive and there were various and sundry packages in his playbook for "sub" defenses ("sub" is a catch-all term for all schemes other than base).

In fact, in some ways, the Rams recent defense with Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron as the linebackers in front of five defensive backs is similar to what was done in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Before those two the Rams used players like Adam Archuleta, Craig Dahl, Corey Chavous, Mike Scurlock, Michael Stewart and others to fill the role of a linebacker in the nickel defenses.

This is 2006 with Will Witherspoon and safety Corey Chavous as the LBers

This shot is from 1980 with Joe Harris (51) and Ivory Sully (37) as the LBers in dime personnel
This is 1996 with Roman Phifer (58) and Mike Scurlock as LBers. #91 is DE Leslie O'Neal
The Rams were not the only team to use seven backs, among others the Bills used it quite a bit in 1981. They had a safety named Rod Kush who could rush and cover and he'd play one linebacker, sometimes with Isiah Robertson as the other linebacker, but also sometimes Kush and Bill Simpson were the linebackers, Rufus Bess was the slot corner. Mario Clark and Charles Romes would play the corners and Jeff Nixon would come into the game and play Simpson's free safety spot and Steve Freeman would stay at strong safety. Kush intercepted a pass, recovered three fumbles and had 5½ sacks in his role as a linebacker, a role he reprised with the Oilers in 1985 when he had 5 sacks and a nickel linebacker.
Here you can see all four linebackers leaving this Bills-Jets game in 1981
Here Kush and Simpson are the linebackers, even agaist base (21 personnel) on 3rd and long

Most teams, though, would not use seven backs like the Rams and Bills did. They would use the traditional 2 LBers and 5 DBs most often, but there were plenty who used one linebacker and one defensive back as a linebacker in front of five defensive backs.

One such team was the Bears where Jeff Fisher and starting free safety Len Walterscheid as linebackers quite often, especially in 1982.

The above two shots show a nickel defense with one LBer (51 first, then 90) and two DBs as LBers
Another interesting one was the Cowboys. They had used six defensive backs in 1979, with Mike Hegman and DB Aaron Mitchell as linebackers and Dennis Thurman was the nickel back. In 1980 they had a fine young backer named Anthony Dickerson who was the linebacker in nickel and over the next several years he had different partners at linebacker, Sometimes it was Benny Barnes, then Charlie Waters or Dexter Clinkscale. But in 1983 he got perhaps his best partner in the role: Bill Bates.
Bates in the Box
Dicker is 51, Bates 40, Thurman 32, Fellows 27
Here Bates is in the MLB spot (similar to Cromwell in the Cover-22)
Bates was listed as a safety but his role was likely 95% linebacker. He and Dickerson would be behind the defensive line and Ron Fellows and Everson Walls would play outside corner, Dennis Thurman would play the slot and Michael Downs and Dexter Clinkscale would man the deep areas. In 1983 Fellows would come in the game with Bates and defensive lineman Don Smerek (who replaced John Dutton) and Thurman would move from corner to slot.

In 1984 Fellows was the starter at right cornerback in the base and Thurman would come off the bench. Bates would blitz (10 sacks from 1983-85 as a non-starter) or cover (six picks over the same period) and was a solid tackler if a team tried to run on the nickel defense.

Bates eventually earned the starting strong safety spot but still dropped to linebacker in the nickel defenses.

There are tons of stories related to this topic and we will post some of them going forward. We think it is key since these kinds of schemes are commonplace now but in the late-1970s and early 1980s it was new, interesting and considered ground-breaking. Though it may have been tinkered with earlier than that but we think that when it was used in earnest was the same time the passing game was opened up because of the mid-to-late 1970s rule changed and the era of substitution bloomed and remains in full force to this day.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Still The Best Ever: Richard "Night Train" Lane

By T.J. Troup
Much has been written about Night Train Lane—His life and his exploits in the NFL. He is to be commended for what he overcame in his childhood, and his belief in himself as an athlete. Many times I have used the line "film study tell us" and today again will detail observations of him and the teams he played for.

The Rams right safety Herb Rich, in early 1952, ranked among the leaders in interceptions. Rich had 6 after four games (twice pilfering 3 Lion aerials). During the 24-16 loss to the Lions on October 16th Lane intercepted the first pass of his career. He would intercept 13 passes the next eight weeks!
Los Angeles righted their ship and won down the stretch to earn a playoff berth for the fourth consecutive season. Watching Lane, he is quick, decisive, and at times explosive in defending the run from his right corner post. The best example of this is when he tackles Eddie Macon of the Bears for a safety.

Why quarterbacks continued to throw against him will be questioned forever but no doubt they either did not realize how gifted he was or he had already learned how to "bait" passers. To wit, how many players steal three passes in back to back weeks to end a season (in must-win games) and help take their team to the playoffs?

Film study (yes, that is what I relish doing) in 1953 shows a subtle change in his style. Lane moved up to almost the line of scrimmage when the left offensive end was aligned near the offensive tackle. He would allow a clean release by the end, and stride down the field with the intended target—but rarely now did teams throw to his man (he did not intercept in the first seven games of the season).

Though Lane only intercepted three passes in 1953; he made one of the best plays of his career:  Fred Cone of Green Bay attempts a 25 yard field goal, and the "Night Train" dashes in and blocks the kick and the ball bounces back towards midfield and beyond, and when Lane grabs it, he scores (listed as 30 yard return).
In 1954 Ram management takes part in a three-team trade that serves two teams well. Don Paul (defensive halfback goes from the Cardinals to Washington), but he refuses to report, and thus he winds up playing excellent football for Cleveland for five years. Los Angeles does not get near in return who they "gave" away. Joe Stydahar needs as much help as he can get in Chicago as the Cardinals are the least talented team in the league. Jumbo Joe will get Ollie Matson back from the military for 1954, and now again has Lane.

Arteburn, Breede, Brosky, Kingery, Crittendon, Kinek, and Oakley—who are these guys? They all attempted to play in the secondary for the Cardinals during 1954, and all will have very short careers.

The Night Train begins the season starting at right safety, but he is moved to left safety in week two on a rotation basis with Matson. Lane is basically the right safety the first half of the year and intercepts opposing passers four times. Since the above mentioned players have struggled and failed, off the bench comes future Hall of Famer Charlie Trippi to play right safety, and first Lane goes to left safety, and ends the season playing some left corner (Kinek was the usual starter there).

NFL Films has a segment on the Night Train and there are entertaining stories on him, yet for me his play against Washington in November says it all. He pursues from left safety to his right to neck tie-tackle halfback Billy Wells. The 'Skins halfback ducks under the tackle and takes off goal ward bound for an 88-yard touchdown. Lane will not give up and outruns his teammates to tackle Wells as he crosses the goal line.

Lane ends the 1954 season by intercepting in the Cardinals last five games and begins the 1955 season at left corner and intercepts in his sixth consecutive game. For years the league record manual would list him (along with Will Sherman) as the two record holders with interceptions in six consecutive games. I still have the memo from Elias Sports Bureau stating these two men were not alone in holding the record but the record and fact book would be changed. That is a story for another day.

This story concerns birthday boy Richard Lane. The Night Train plays well at left corner in 1955 and continues as a part-time receiver (his speed and athleticism make him a deep threat). Ray Richards has the Cardinals on the upswing in 1956, and with the valuable assistance of secondary coach Wally Lemm they win for the only time in the decade. Chicago has revamped the secondary and is the best in the league, with Lane now established as the best left corner in the league. Fearless against the run since he relishes contact, and still knifing in front of receivers for the "pick".

The best example is week two when Lane takes an errant Charley Conerly pass for 66 yards and a key touchdown. The Chicago Cardinals are 2-0, but cannot maintain their momentum (they split their last ten games). Opening day 1957 the Cardinals upset the play-off bound 49ers as they open the game in a hybrid nickel coverage. The Night Train intercepts twice early in the year, but is shelved by injuries during the second half of the year and as such does not make the Pro Bowl (he was not chosen for the Pro Bowl in '52 when he set the record, nor was he a First-team All-Pro).

Lane returns to health in 1958 and again is the best left corner in the league. Chicago, under Pop Ivy, is aligned in a double wing offensive formation most of the time; and though entertaining the turnover machine makes a shaky defense very vulnerable. The 1959 campaign is more of the same, yet Lane continues to make quarterbacks pay; even future Hall of Famers as the "Dutchman" Norm Van Brocklin learns early in the year when Lane goes 37 for a touchdown on a pick six.

His time ended in Chicago as he is dealt before the 1960 season to the Lions for Gerry Perry. A trade that no doubt ranks among the worst the Cardinals have ever made. Detroit is back in contention in 1960 and the Night Train has evolved. His alignment at left corner is now playing off turned on an angle towards the quarterback, his thought process—'I want the ball from that man, and have to see him while maintaining outside leverage against the wide receiver my side (usually a flanker)'.

A young Dick LeBeau is learning his lessons at right corner (when he is not moved to left safety due to injury) and in his own way the Night Train had an impact on the youngster with his "triangle vision" of pass defense. The 1961 season is a fascinating one in league history and there will be a rule change due to the Night Train. Jon Arnett swing out the backfield for a pass in Briggs Stadium and Lane, as always is, supersonic in coming up and going high on Jaguar Jon. This famous photo impacted the league, yet have seen other clips of him taking Taz Anderson and Mike Ditka to the deck with head hunting tackles, 'Face mask be damned, you are going down'. Thus, you can no longer grab the face mask to tackle.
Though he is entering the twilight of his career he continues to intercept in key situations; ask Unitas about his wide side throw in October of 1960, or Bart Starr on Thanksgiving day of 1962. The first half of 1963 he intercepts five times, but his knee needs surgery and the Lions are no longer contenders. How do you replace a man of this caliber? You do not! Aged Jim Hill, and young Jim Kearney attempted to do so until secondary coach Carl Taseff thought Bobby Thompson was ready. Thompson just does not measure up though he is given three years to establish himself.
Lane's last interception came against the Colts and Unitas on October 25th, 1964 in a 34-0 blowout loss. The Night Train was even put on waivers, and no one claimed him; thus he returns to Detroit to spend part of the year on the taxi squad. There have been many outstanding corners since Richard "Night Train" Lane retired, yet for me, he is the benchmark to be measured by. His versatility in playing both safety posts, and both corner positions along with his ability to play pass defense and be a force in tackling whether in pursuit or on the "force". Happy Birthday Night Train.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Remembering Dan Rooney (1932-2017)

By Chris Willis, NFL Films

Dan Rooney at his 2000 Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction (Photo courtesy of Chris Willis)
I’ve worked at NFL Films for 21 years, and unfortunately, I never met Dan Rooney, although I was present in Canton, Ohio in 2000 to watch him get enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But that was the closest I ever came to meeting him. So it was a bit of surprise in June of 2015 when I received a phone call from Mr. Rooney. 

He wanted to talk to me about my book on Joe Carr, the former NFL President from 1921-1939, that was published in 2010. He told me he enjoyed reading my book on Carr and the NFL’s formative years—an era that included his father Art Rooney starting the Steelers. The reason for his call is that he wanted to know more about the letters I used in the book. He told me he was writing a book about the history of the NFL through letters. I thought it was a great project and agreed to help. A month later I emailed a few items I found for his book project. He was very grateful for my help.

When I heard the news today that Mr. Rooney had passed away at the age of 84 my initial reaction was to think back to our one phone conversation two years ago. It was a short twenty-minute conversation among millions for him. But for me it was twenty minutes I’ll always remember and cherish. We lost a bit of NFL history today. Rest in Peace Mr. Rooney, you will be missed.
Rooney in uniform. Colorizations by PFJ

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Exploring the Origins of the Designated Pass Rusher: Part I

By John Turney

It is difficult to know exactly when an innovation entered into pro football. The safety blitz was purported to have been invented by Larry Wilson in 1961 but in 1960 the Oilers of the AFL employed the same tactic the year before.

The same is true of the nickel back, when was it first employed? No one is really sure. When was it employed "in earnest" that is when it was a dedicated part of a defensive game plan would be a better test.

The same is true for the so-called "designated pass rusher" or nickel rusher. Today it is commonplace, so much so that it's not talked about much in the media, either on the Web or during games, but it is a vital position. Sometimes it's an older player coming in at the end of his career or a younger player with his young legs taking the place of a 3-4-type end when a team uses four down linemen.

Film study has yet to reveal the first time it was used in the NFL, but we do have a good idea of when it was used in earnest.

Years ago we spoke to Paul Zimmerman, then SI's head writer. He mentioned he thought perhaps Larry Cole, in 1968 would come in to fill in for a heavy-legged starting left defensive end Willie Townes. But, Townes was injured early in the season and Cole became the starter anyway.

In 1969 Roger Brown sustained an injury and youngster Coy Bacon became the Rams starting right tackle, but when Brown returned they split time and T.J. Troup indicates that essentially Bacon, the younger, quicker player was used on pass downs in a platoon with the older, heavier Brown.

However, neither really did it for a sustained time. We think that distinction came in 1970 when Cedrick Hardman was a rookie. He was a dynamite pass rusher in college and taken in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers. He was, though, not ready to be an NFL starter. "Heck, it took him until 1972 to learn how to close a trap. He threw a party for him when he got it done", says then 49er linebacker coach Mike Giddings. Hardman started five games that season after the 49ers coaching staff had tried to groom Hardman. Early in the season he'd rotate in at right defensive end, but "the idea was to get him run-stopping experience in the rotation and then get him into the game on passing downs" recalls Giddings.

It worked well as the 49ers won the division and Hardman led the team in sacks with 8½. In the following clip you can see Bill Belk leave the game and Hardman enter the game and make a play.
In Baltimore, Bill Newsome sometimes was used in a similar role. He beat out Roy Hilton early in the season but later, Hilton re-secured the right DE spot, but there were plenty of times film study shows Newsome at left DE and usual left DE Bubba Smith playing inside and Hilton playing right DE. Billy Ray Smith, the 34-year old tackle was out of the game. Interestingly, in reviewing Super Bowl V these variations were not used much, if at all.

In 1971 George Allen used newly acquired Jimmie Jones in the same way. (He also used Bill Brundige as a rush tackle to relieve Manny Sistrunk on pass downs). Jones was a tall, light, extremely quick player who led the Redskins in sacks in 1971 with 7½ sacks, the first we know of to lead a team in sacks while starting only one game.

In this clip you can hear Frank Gifford mention this Redskin duo entering the game in a passing situation.
In the Los Angeles Rams employed what they called their "57" defense when they would try and get three DEs on the field on passing downs. Deacon Jones was the left DE and early in season he missed a few games with a fallen arch, rookie Jack Youngblood filled in and the Rams won all three games. When Jones returned is when the Rams used the "57" with Youngblood playing right DE (a position he hated) and usual right DE Coy Bacon reducing to defensive tackle.

In the same game as the first clip you can hear the ABC announcing team mention Youngblood's role, coming in on a pick 6 and leaving on a 3rd and one.

The next season Youngblood started 11 games at left DE and newly acquired Fred Dryer started three, but in the games Dryer got a lot of action in the "57" playing right DE and again, Bacon playing inside. Dryer ended the season with 4½ sacks.
In 1973 Harvey Martin won the designated role in training camp and he'd play in sure passing downs at left defensive end, with, ironically, Larry Cole going to the bench. Martin ended the season with 9 sacks as the Cowboys advanced to the NFC Championship game.

Cole, at LDE in Dallas base 4-3 flex

Martin in game at LDE in place of Cole
This clip shows Martin come in on a 3rd down and 17 and sack Fran Tarkenton in the NFC Championship game.
The next season number one overall pick Ed Jones was the designated rusher on the right side, Martin on the left and Bill Gregory would come in for Bob Lilly. Lilly told Pro Football Journal, "they replaced me on passing downs my final tow years and to this day I don't know why. At that stage in my career, I was a better pass rusher than run player".

Here are some more stills from 1973:

Here Martin is in for Cole and Bill Gregory for Lilly.

This is the Dallas base 4-3 flex with Cole as LDE.
Pat Toomay said the experience was fine by him, "More effective pay per play" he wrote in his book The Crunch. "I was getting paid the same no matter how many plays, so, the way I say it my 'pay per play' went up". After the season Toomay was dealt to the Buffalo Bills and in 1975 Ed Jones and Harvey Martin switched sides and became the starting DEs in the "Doomsday II" defense and Martin ended the 1974 season with 7½ sacks and Jones had 6 (in Dallas they were called 'traps') sacks.
In 1974 the New Orleans Saints used a 3-4 defense quite a lot. In that scheme their usual 4-3 right DE, Joe Owens, would be on the bench. Bob Pollard would play right DE in the 30. When they went to nickel (4-2-5) Pollard would play inside (similar to what Bubba Smith and Coy Bacon had done and what Howie Long and Dan Hampton would do in the future) and Owens would come in and be the sack master, and he led the team in 9½ sacks.
The Saints when they used a 3-4 as a base

Here is their 4-3 base defense, note the RDE is #82 Pollard.

Here is the nickel with Owens at RDE and Pollard at LDT
Also in 1974 the great Deacon Jones filled the DPR role for the Redskins. Jones had started all 13 of his previous seasons but signed with the Redskins and George Allen to try for one more shot at an NFL title. Jones played both left and right DE, usually taking LDE Ron McDole's place (McDole is who left the game, usually, in 1971 when Jimmie Jones came into the game) and the Deac ended the season with three sacks, though he had one taken away due to a penalty.

Joe Owens was used in the same role in 1975 as well, finishing with 6½ sacks. However, there were times he'd spell new right DE Stave Baumgartner at right DE in the times they used the 4-3.
In 1975 the Cowboys had another stud rusher they had drafted: Maryland's Randy White. Dallas thought he'd end up being a starting linebacker in their defense, eventually. In the meantime, he'd be used in a variety of ways, mostly as a rusher on pass downs. The Cowboys would line up White as and outside linebacker in a 3-3-5 defense and rush, either from the right or the left. He'd also take either Jethro Pugh's spot at LDT or Larry Cole's spot at RDT and rush on 3rd and long situations and would also line up as a nose in a 3-man line. He had 11 sacks combined in 1975 and 1976.

Here are some examples of White's play in 1975 and 1976 lining up in various spots.

The Chiefs had a rushman in 1976 as well and they finished with 5½ sacks and only started three games. We have not seen enough 1976 Chiefs film to know his role exactly, but we suspect it was as an inside rusher in likely passing downs, in that the Chiefs had decent ends, Whitney Paul and Wilbur Young, though they seem to be reversed in where they lined up, but that's a different topic altogether.
Continue reading in Part II: