And it ended with two astounding victories by the American Football League when the brash Joe Namath helped the New York Jets win Super Bowl
III and the powerful Kansas City Chiefs spoiled the NFL’s golden anniversary celebration by winning Super Bowl IV, and positioned pro football for
its last great realignment.
That second quarter century began when the Cleveland Rams found a wonderful tailback at UCLA named Bob Waterfield whose gorgous movie star
wife Jane Russell elicited more publicity than he did — even on the sports pages. Waterfield not only was named NFL rookie of the year in 1945, but
he led the Rams to the NFL championsip on the margin of a fluke safety scored when a pass thrown by Washington’s Sammy Baugh from his own end
zone struck the cross bar of the goal posts and fell to the ground. Under the rules of the time, that was an automatic safety and brought the Rams a
Before the next summer rolled around, the Cleveland Rams were the Los Angeles Rams . . . and the face of pro football was changed forever bcause
expansion had become a heady proposition and suddenly the Mississippi River barrier (there were no major league teams in any sport west of St.
Louis in 1945) disappeared.
A NEW RIVAL:THE ALL-AMERICA FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
The NFL was not the first to place a major league team on the west coast because, before the war ended, already primed and ready to begin operations
in 1946 was the All-America Football Conference, with a farseeing image that included two of its eight franchises in Los Angeles and San Francisco;
and a shattering of the racial barriers that heretofore had made the sport an all white entity since 1933.
The AAFC lasted just four years, but it was a seminal influence on the post-war growth of pro football because it forced changes in the sport that
prepared it for the up tempo era of sports in post-war America.
This new league was the brainchild of Arch Ward, the renowned sports editor of the Chicago Tribune and father of both baseball’s All-Star Game and
the Chicago College All-Star football game. He wanted a structure in pro football that matched that of major league baseball — two separate leagues
who decided a champion with a world series. He mistakenly believed the two leagues would coexist without problems, as major league baseball did.
But it never happened beause he underestimated the importance of the player draft and instead of peace and harmony, the two leagues fought each
other with dollars for new players. More importantly, the AAFC also brought new minds and ideas that propelled the sport’s popularity.
THE NEW NFL
The merger of the NFL and AAFC in 1950 produced a truly national football league that had two West Coast teams in the Rams and 49ers, two in
New York with the Giants and Yanks (a combination of the Bulldogs, and Yankees from the AAFC) and the original franchises in the middle. The
AAFC’s Colts lasted just one year; the Yanks were transferred to Dallas in 1952 but lasted only part of that season and then became the Baltimore
Colts in 1953.
When the Browns entered the NFL, they were target No. 1 for all the old NFL teams, which had belittled their AAFC rivals as being less than worthy.
So Bell matched the two league champions–Cleveland and the Eagles–against eachother in the season opener and the Browns clobbered the proud
NFL champions 35-10. The NFL’s old guard was stunned but Bell was delighted.
The Browns then went on to win their first NFL championship with a thrilling 30-28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams which, had there been
national television on the scale of today, would have been remembered as one of the greatest games in league history. The Browns came from behind
in the final minute to win on Lou Groza’s field goal after a magnificent two minute drill by Graham set up the winning score. Paul Brown called it
the most memorable game of his career because it validated all that his team had accomplished, and because so many of the game’sgreatest players
competed on the same field.
The Browns ran their consecutive title game appearances to ten through 1955 and once again threatened to dull a league, even with three consecutive
title game losses to the Rams on Van Brocklin’s 75-yard touchdown pass to Tom Fears midway through the fourth quarter of the 1951 game, and to
the Lions in 1952-53 (the latter on Bobby Layne’s late, game-winning pass to Jim Doran). They snapped the losing streak by pounding the Lions
56-10 for the 1954 title after which Graham retired. When Brown was unable to find a suitable replacement, he induced Otto to come back for one
final year, and they combined to win one last title, defeating the Rams 38-14.
DEEEF-ENSE LEADS THE WAY … AND SO DOES JIM BROWN
One great change was occuring in the NFL at that time — an equalization of emphasis on the defense. Cleveland’s great offense had forced teams to
come up with new defensive schemes and the New York Giants were the first to succeed in 1950 when coach Steve Owen developed an Umbrella
Defense to try and counter the Browns’ great passing offense. He put the concept on the blackboard and then told a young player-coach named Tom
Landry to fill in the blanks. Landry did, and seven years later, faced with another threat in Cleveland named Jim Brown, he did it again by winnowing
a 43 defensive concept to counter the game’s greatest running back of all time.
Soon historic Yankee Stadium shook with thunderous cries of DEEEE-FENSE as the Giants brought a new dimension to pro football that keyed their
own dynasty run from 1956-63; and because all of this happened in New York City, the nation’s media capitol, the Giants defense became renowned
and so did many of its principals, including middle linebacker Sam Huff who made the cover of Time Magazine and was the subject of a prime time
CBS documentary, The Violent World of Sam Huff, which for the first time, took viewers rightinto the melee on the field.
This became part of a three-way equation. Part Two occurred in Cleveland where Paul Brown drafted running back Jim Brown from Syracuse in
1957. He was a six-foot, 230-pound physical marvel who really was a halfback in a fullback’s body because he was more powerful than any of the
game’s bigger fullbacks yet he possessed world-class speed with great open field running ability. So many of his runs were incredible that even his
great performances became commonplace and Paul Brown, with whom he feuded during some of their time together, said he was the greatest back he
had ever seen.
He played for Cleveland for nine seasons and finished as the NFL’s all-time rusher with 12,312 yards (he now ranks No. 4), a figure that stood until
Walter Payton broke it inthe 80s. However, Brown’s most enduring statistic is his still No. 1 5.2 yards per carry average.
Brown’s running made Cleveland an instant contender (had they a quarterback of Graham’s caliber, they would have begun another long dynasty run)
and that brought them into immediate conflict with the Giants for supremacy in the Eastern Division. The Giants had smothered the Bears for the 1956
NFL title and won division titles in 1958 and ’59.
The 1958 title was decided in a playoff game that followed a season-ending 13-10 victory over Cleveland when Pat Summerall kicked a 49-yard field
goal through the swirling snow and darkness in Yankee Stadium to snatch the win. A week later, the Giants defense shut out Brown and his team 10-0
and set up the title clash with Baltimore.
That was the third part of the equation. Baltimore’s football fortunes were resustitated when Carroll Rosenbloom purchased the Dallas Texans
franchise after the 1952 season. Two years later, he hired Browns’ assistant Weeb Ewbank to coach his team, and a year later, stumbled into a young
quarterback named Johnny Unitas who had played sandlot football the previous year for five dollars a game. Unitas sported a crew cut, a baby face
and the toughness of a Marine drill sergeant. He didn’t have the strongest arm, he wasn’t a nifty runner but he had the daring of a riverboat gambler and
the great attribute of turning apparantly lost games into last-minute wins. It didn’t take long for an aura of invincibility to build around him and rub off
on talented teammates such as Lenny Moore, Alan (The Horse) Ameche, Raymond Berry, and a defense led by Gino Marchetti. All of this worked to
produce the Western Division championship and a match against the Giants in Yankee Stadium for the 1958 title.
THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED
The game, long hailed as the greatest game ever played, because of its impact on the sport, was televised nationally but the Giants-Browns rivalry
the previous two weeks had drawn such national attention, thanks to its New York City connection, that millions of viewers tuned in to see what would
happen — and they saw the game of the NFL’s life. The game had every element of football drama — great catches, unbelievable runs, goal line stands,
even a cable break that cut off transmission for several minutes and caused near-hysteria in millions of homes around the nation. The magnificent
theatre of pro football was then topped with the first sudden death overtime game in league history after Unitas drove his team down the field to tie the
score on Steve Myrha’s field goal in the final seven seconds. When he got the ball in the extra quarter, he did it again, finally sending Ameche tumbling
into the end zone at 8:15 of overtime for a 23-17 victory.
There is no doubt that the game opened the way to a wonderful marriage with television and the unimagined prosperity that the marriage produceed. It
wasn’t long before the entire nation couldn’t get enough of the sport. It was as if the two had been invented for each other.
In 1960, the new American Football League signed a historic contract with the American Broadcasting Company, allowing the network to televise all
of its games and dividng the revenues equally with all eight teams. In 1962, CBS acquired rights to all the NFL games, and in 1965, NBC had those of
the AFL, and soon revenues were being totalled in millions of dollars … $15.9 million from CBS for the 1964 NFL season and title game, $18.8
million for playoffs and regular season games the following year … and finally $2 million for the 1966 NFL title game. Television contracts now
exceed a billion dollars.
THE TV GAME
One long-lasting addition to pro football occurred in 1970 when Monday night football became an American cultural staple. The NFL had
experimented with three Monday night games in 1969 on CBS, but when it cast about for having a full-time schedule, both NBC and CBS demurered,
not wishing to disturb their already solid Monday night entertainment schedule. But ABC, television’s poor cousin at that time, took a chance and it
paid off with a phenomenon never before envisioned.
One game was offered each Monday night–always a good matchup because the NFL wanted to showcase its product–and the manner in which
Americans spent the first weekday night changed forever. For one thing, the weekly event became a game-within-a-game, first with the one transpiring
on the field and the other in the broadcasting booth, pitting Howard Cosell against Don Meredith, a former quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, each of
whom were poles apart in outlook and temperament. Week after week, the overbearing Cosell fell victim to Meredith’s pure country boy wit that
delighted millions whenever he punctured Cosell’s pretensions and pomposities.
Americans Monday night entertainment habits revolved around the NFL. Bowling leagues, civic and social meetings were rescheduled; movies found
diminished attendances; streets were less crowded; and even crime decreased as everyone–the good and the bad–stayed home to watch pro football. A
quarter century later, the series–the longest running in TV history–still attracts huge audiences.
Television’s impact on NFL football didn’t only happen on Monday night. In Washington, the emergence of the Washington Redskins as an exciting
team, had a profound impact on the league’s TV policies. Everyone in the Nation’s Capitol was a Redskins fan — particularly those working in the
Halls of Congress.
That fandom turned to a frenzy when first Vince Lombardi came to town and produced a winning team in his only season before dying from cancer
in 1970; and was further heightened when George Allen came two years later and developed his Over the Hill Gang, and took it to Super Bowl VII.
This rabid interest clashed headlong into the NFL policy of not televising home games, and it didn’t take long for those diehard Redskins fans on
Capitol Hill to demand a change–or else! The NFL suddenly rearranged its blackout law to include only those home games not sold out 72 hours
before kickoff. Since every Redskins game was sold out for the season, Washington — and Congress — was assuaged.
And pro football began its move abroad, beginning in 1986 when the Cowboys and Chicago Bears played at Wembley Stadium in London biore
83,000, and began an American Bowl series that now includes games in Germany, Mexico, Japan, Scandanavia and Spain. It also formed the impetus
to the World League of American Football, a spring league based primarily in major European cities, ostensibly to develop players but really to
consolidate and promote NFL Properties interests aboard — interests which produced some $3 billion worth of sales each year.
GREAT TEAMS – GREAT PLAYERS
On the field, new dynasties sprung up in Dallas, Miami, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, San Francisco, Denver and Buffalo; and with them came another
pantheon of stars who are, or will be, enshrined in the Hall of Fame . . . quarterbacks such as Roger Staubach of the Cowboys; Terry Bradshaw of
Pittsburgh; John Elway of Denver; Jim Kelly of Buffalo; Dan Marino of Miami; Dan Fouts of San Diego; and Joe Montana of the 49ers and Chiefs;
great running backs like Tony Dorsett of Dallas; Larry Csonka of Miami; Franco Harris of Pittsburgh; O.J. Simpson of Buffalo; Earl Campbell; Eric
Dickerson; Barry Sanders of Detroit; Thurman Thomas of Buffalo; and, of course, the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, Walter Payton of the Bears.
And then there were great receivers such as Jerry Rice of the 49ers, who will hold every major receiving record when he finally retires; Washington’s
Art Monk; Steve Largent of Seattle; Paul Warfield of Cleveland and Miami; Lynn Swann and John Stallworth of Pittsburgh; Drew Pearson of Dallas;
the Marks Brothers, Clayton & Duper of Miami, and Sterling Sharpe of Green Bay.
Defenses also turned out their share of stars, with Dallas’ Doomsday gang, with Bob Lilly, coming of age in the early 70s and then producing a
Doomsday II, with Randy White, Too Tall Jones and Harvey Martin later in the decade and into the 80s; Minnesota’a Purple People Eaters, featuring
Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, who played more consecutive games than anyone in the sports history and Alan Page; Miami’s famed No-Name Defense that
helped the Dolphins to the NFL’s only perfect season in 1972; the Steel Curtain of Pittsburgh that paved the way to four Super Bowls, led by Mean Joe
Green and Jack Lambert, and a hard-hitting secondary that featured Mel Blount; the Giants of the 80s with linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry
Carson, and linemen George Martin and Leonard Marshall; and the Chicago Bears which featured Mike Singletary, Richard Dent and William (The
Fridge) Perry. And many, many more.
But getting to that point and into such a heady existence was not always easy, beginning at the very start of the third trimester.
NFL Champions (1970-93) 1970 Baltimore (AFC) 16, Dallas (NFC) 13 1971 Dallas (NFC) 24, Miami (AFC) 3 1972 Miami (AFC) 14,
Washington (NFC) 7 1973 Miami (AFC) 24, Minnesota (NFC) 7 1974 Pittsburgh (AFC) 16, Minnesota (NFC) 6 1975 Pittsburgh (IAFC) 21, Dallas
(NFC) 17 1976 Oakland (AFC) 32, Minnesota (NFC) 14 1977 Dallas (NFC) 27, Denver (AFC) 10 1978 Pittsburgh (AFC) 35, Dallas (NFC) 31
1979 Pittsburgh (AFC) 31, Los Angeles (NFC) 19 1980 Oakland (AFC) 27, Philadelphia (NFC) 10 1981 San Francisco (NFC) 26, Cincinnati (AFC)
21 1982 Washington (NFC) 27, Miami (AFC) 17 1983 Los Angeles (AFC) 38, Washington (NFC) 9 1984 San Francisco (NFC) 38, Miami (AFC)
16 1985 Chicago (NFC) 46, New England (AFC) 10 1986 New York (NFC) 39, Denver (AFC) 20 1987 Washington (NFC) 42, Denver (AFC) 10
1988 San Francisco (NFC) 20, Cincinnati (AFC,) 16 1989 San Francisco (NFC) 55, Denver (AFC) 10 1990 New York (NFC) 20, Buffalo (AFC) 19
1991 Washington (NFC) 37, Buffalo (AFC) 24 1992 Dallas (NFC) 52, Buffalo (AFC) 17 1993 Dallas (NFC) 30, Buffalo (AFC) 13