Saturday, December 30, 2017

Unlikely NFL/AFL Championship Game Heroes

     One of my pet peeves is the general public's lack of historical knowledge.  We've probably all seen the "person on the street" interviews where passersby can't answer the most basic history questions.  Therefore, it's not surprising that this also happens with sports.  It seems like many/most NFL fans don't seem to know (or care, at least) that the Super Bowl has only been played since the 1966 season.  But the NFL originated well before that, and had different ways of determining which team was considered to be the champion for each year.  From 1921-32, there was only one NFL division, and the champion was simply the team with the best won-loss percentage.  (Although, at this time tie games were just disregarded, and not counted as half a win and half a loss as they are now, leading to many controversies.)  From 1933-65, the leaders of the two divisions (the Eastern and Western Divisions for most of this time, although there were years when they were called the American and National Conferences, or the Eastern and Western Conferences) played each other in the NFL Championship, with the winner being the NFL champion.  Meanwhile, another professional league, the American Football League (AFL) started in 1960, and its champions were also determined by a title game between its two division leaders.  Then from 1966-69 the champions of the AFL and the NFL played each in what was eventually known as the Super Bowl, and in 1970 the AFL was absorbed into the NFL as the American Football Conference (with 3 NFL teams joining it).  So the point of this post is to highlight the men who starred in these title games from 1933-65 for the NFL, or 1960-65 for the AFL.  And they're unlikely because they were not famous, Hall of Famers, and often were not even starters.  If you're interested in reading about unlikely Super Bowl heroes, consult my blog post from January 30, 2014.
     Also, the players mentioned in this post will tend to be those who played mainly on offence rather than defense.  That's in part because statistics for these early days weren't as well kept, especially for defensive numbers.  (Tackles and most of the sacks, most notably, aren't recorded.)  Furthermore, position names were a little different back then.  "Flanker" and "end" roughly correspond to the modern wide receiver, for example.  Also, teams played shorter schedules (usually 10-14 games in the regular season), and offenses were limited by certain different rules, such as what constituted pass interference, etc.  Finally, note that for much of the time period we're discussing, the leagues usually had 10 teams, as opposed to the current 32.  Meaning there were correspondingly fewer players in the league, so making the Pro Bowl was a bit easier.  (Obviously, it was more difficult to become a pro football player, with fewer teams, but once you did it was slightly easier to be named to the Pro Bowl.)  Also, many/most of the players I'll talk about probably would have been named Most Valuable Player, but this award wasn't given until the Super Bowl.  But let's get to it.  I'll go generally in order, oldest to most recent.

1) Bill Karr.  Karr played with the Chicago Bears from 1933-38.  He played in 63 total games, starting 46, at end.  His career numbers are modest, even for the time period--48 receptions for 1032 yards (21.5 average) and 18 touchdowns, 6 rushes for 27 yards and another touchdown.  He was named as All-Pro once, and also one year he did lead the NFL in receiving touchdowns.  He did have a very good game in the first ever Championship game, in 1933 versus the New York Giants.  Karr scored both of the Bear touchdowns in their narrow 23-21 win.  The first came on an 8 yard pass from Bronco Nagurski, and the second came on a 19 yard lateral from Bill Hewitt, after a 14 yard pass again from Nagurski.

2) Ed Danowski.  Danowski played back/quarterback for the New York Giants from 1934-41, starting 40 of a total 71 games.  Lifetime he completed 309 out of 637 passes (48.5%), for 3817 yards, 37 touchdown passes, 44 interceptions, and a passer rating of 58.1.  He played in 1 Pro Bowl, and was named to 2 All-Pro teams.  He also led the NFL in completions and completion percentage twice, and passing yards and touchdown passes once each.  Danowski added 1173 yards on 425 rushing attempts (2.7 average), and 4 touchdowns.  He played in 4 NFL championships (1934, 1935, 1938, and 1939), and won 2 (1934 and 1938).  It was the 1938 contest versus the Green Bay Packers that he really excelled.  In it he completed 7 of 11 passes for 74 yards and 2 touchdown passes, with no interceptions.  He also rushed twice, for 2 yards, and on defense he intercepted a pass.

3) Charles "Hap" Barnard.  Barnard is probably the most obscure name on this list.  He only played one year, 1938, with the New York Giants.  In fact, he only played in 5 games, as an end.  His lifetime stats are remarkably succinct--one reception for 33 yards, and no touchdowns.  Despite this, he somehow made the Pro Bowl in his only year.  (The New York Giants sent 20 players to that game that year, suggesting it wasn't quite as special as in most years.) (Update:  I've since learned that in the late 1930's up to the early 1940's every member of the team that won the NFL title was named to the Pro Bowl, explaining Barnard's honor, and probably several other players on this list.)  Anyway, in the 1938 Championship game versus the Green Bay Packers he caught one pass, for 21 yards and a touchdown.

4) Joe Laws.  Laws played as a halfback/defensive halfback with the Green Bay Packers from 1934-45, starting 51 of 120 total games.  His lifetime totals include 470 rushes for 1932 yards (4.1 average) and 9 touchdowns, and 79 receptions for 1041 yards (13.2 average) and 9 more touchdowns.  On defense he totaled 18 interceptions for 266 yards and 1 touchdown.  He played on 3 NFL title  winning teams, in 1936, 1939, and 1944.  In the 1944 game he was spectacular, contributing on offense, defense, and special teams.  He rushed 13 times for 74 yards, returned one kickoff for 12 yards and 3 punts for 37 yards, and intercepted 3 passes for 19 yards and recovered a fumble.  Along with Rod Martin, he still holds the record for most interceptions in an NFL/AFL Championship game or a Super Bowl.

5) Dante Magnani.  Magnani was a halfback/wingback from 1940-43, 1946-50 with the Cleveland Rams, Chicago Bears, and Detroit Lions.  He started 41 out of 84 total games and was named to 1 Pro Bowl.  His lifetime stats are 331 rushes for 1466 yards (4.4 average) and 3 touchdowns, and 79 receptions for 942 yards (11.9 average) and 10 touchdowns.  On special teams he contributed 11 punt returns for 121 yards (11.0 average) and 0 touchdowns, and 37 kickoff returns for 947 yards and 2 touchdowns.  On defense he intercepted 8 passes for 127 yards and 0 touchdowns.  He was one of the star players on two NFL Championship winning teams, in 1943 and 1946 while with the Bears.  In 1943 vs. the Washington Redskins, he caught 4 passes for 122 yards and 2 touchdowns, while rushing 2 times for 6 yards, and returning a kickoff for 18 yards.  Then, in the 1946 game vs. the New York Giants, he starred on defense, intercepting 2 passes for 49 yards, and 1 touchdown.

6)  Jim Gillette.  Gillette played in 1940, and 1944-48 with the Cleveland Rams, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, and the wonderfully named Boston Yanks.  His totals are 16 starts in 52 total games as a halfback.  He accrued 172 rushes for 831 yards (4.8 average) and 4 touchdowns, and 24 receptions for 376 yards (15.7 average) and 2 more touchdowns.  Also 23 punt returns for 309 yards (13.4 average) and 0 touchdowns, and 14 kickoff returns for 290 yards (20.7 average) and 0 touchdowns.  On defense he intercepted 14 passes for 59 yards.  He was at his best in the 1945 Championship game while a Cleveland Ram vs. the Washington Redskins.  He rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries, and added 45 yards and a touchdown on 2 receptions.

7) Elmer Angsman.  Angsman played halfback for the Chicago Cardinals from 1946-52, starting 26 out of 83 total games.  He was named to 1 Pro Bowl.  His lifetime totals include 683 rushes for 2908 yards (4.3 average) and 27 touchdowns, and 41 receptions for 654 yards (16.0 average) and 5 more touchdowns.  Also 10 kickoff returns for 147 yards (14.7 average) and 0 touchdowns.  In the Cardinals win versus my Philadelphia Eagles in the 1947 Championship game he rushed 10 times for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns.

8) Leo Skladany.  Aside from Charles Barnard, Skladany has to be the most obscure player on this list.  He only played a total of 7 games, over 2 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles (1949) and the New York Giants (1950) as a substitute defensive/offensive end.  He doesn't have any offensive or defensive stats listed on any of the websites I consulted.  However, in the 1949 Championship vs. the Los Angeles Rams while playing with the Eagles, he did block a punt and return it for a touchdown.  Since the final score was only 14-0, it was obviously an important moment.  (The game was played in a torrential rain storm, one which dumped a total of 3 inches in Los Angeles.)

9) Wilbur Moore.  Moore played with the Washington Redskins as a wingback/halfback/defensive back/fullback from 1939-46, starting 37 out of 72 total games.  Career, he rushed 183 times for 901 yards (4.9 average) and 8 touchdowns, while catching 91 passes for 1224 yards (13.5 average) and 16 touchdowns.  On defense he intercepted 13 passes for 167 yards and 0 touchdowns.  On special teams he totaled 6 punt returns for 29 yards (4.8 average) and 0 touchdowns, and 11 kickoff returns for 206 yards (18.7 average) and 0 touchdowns.  He was named to 1 Pro Bowl.  In the 1942 Championship vs. the Chicago Bears he caught 2 passes for 39 yards and a touchdown, returned a kickoff for 25 yards, and intercepted 1 pass for 14 yards, helping the Redskins win 14-6.

10) Chick Jagade.  Jagade played fullback for the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and Chicago Bears in 1949, and 1951-55.  All told he played in 68 games.  He accumulated 412 rushes for 1728 yards (4.2 average) and 13 touchdowns, and caught 68 passes for 628 yards (9.2 average) and 1 touchdown.  He also returned 23 kickoffs for 387 yards (16.8 average) and 0 touchdowns.  He had two remarkably similar Championship games in two losing efforts against the Detroit Lions.  In the 1952 Championship he rushed 15 times for 104 yards and a touchdown, and returned 1 kickoff for 17 yards.  In the 1953 game he rushed 15 times for 102 yards and a touchdown, while also catching one pass for 18 yards and returning one kickoff for 29 yards.

11) Henry Moore.  Moore played defensive back/halfback for the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts in 1956-57, totaling 16 games.  His lifetime stats are 1 interception for 0 yards, 2 rushes for negative 2 yards, and 1 kickoff return for 16 yards.  However, while playing for the Giants in their 1956 Championship game win against the Chicago Bears, he recovered a blocked punt in the endzone for a touchdown.  (He also rushed once, for 0 yards.)

12) Tobin Rote.  Rote had a long, but mostly mediocre NFL and AFL career, playing quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, San Diego Chargers, and Denver Broncos from 1950-59, 1963-4, and 1966 (he played in the Canadian Football League from 1960-62).  All told he completed 1329 out of 2907 passes (45.7%), for 148 touchdowns and 191 interceptions, and a 56.8 passer rating.  He led the league in passing attempts and completions twice, in passing yardage once, in touchdown passes twice, in completion percentage once, and yards per attempt once.  He was also named All-Pro once, and voted to the Pro Bowl twice.  He was also a fantastic rushing quarterback, accumulating 3128 yards on 635 attempts (4.9 average) and 37 touchdowns, and led his team in rushing 4 times.  He seemed to play his best in Championship games, though.  In 1957 with the Lions he took the starting reins when Bobby Layne got injured late in the season.  Then in the 1957 Championship game vs. the Cleveland Browns Rote played great, completing 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards, and 4 touchdowns with 0 interceptions.  He also rushed 7 times for 27 yards and a touchdown.  In 1963, while with the Chargers, he did his part to trounce the Boston Patriots.  He completed 10 of 15 passes for 173 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions, while rushing 4 times for 15 yards and 1 touchdown.  He also holds the distinction of being the only quarterback to lead his team to victory in both a NFL and AFL title game.

13) Steve Junker.  Junker had a brief, 55 game career with the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins from 1957-62, playing end.  He totaled 48 receptions for 639 yards (13.3 average) and 6 touchdowns.  However, in the Lion's 59-14 dismantling of the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 Championship game he caught 5 passes for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns.

14) Ted Dean.  Dean played fullback/running back for the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings from 1960-64.  In 44 total games he rushed 263 times for 923 yards (3.5 average) and 2 touchdowns, while catching 51 passes for 684 yards (13.4 average) and 4 touchdowns.  On special teams he returned 46 punts for 279 yards (6.1 average) and 0 touchdowns, and returned 70 kickoffs for 1553 yards (22.2 average) and 0 touchdowns.  He led the NFL in kickoff returns and yardage in 1960, and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1961 as a punt returner.  In the Eagles 1960 Championship game win vs. the Green Bay Packers he rushed 13 times for 54 yards and 1 touchdown, caught 1 pass for 22 yards, returned 1 punt for 10 yards, and returned 1 kickoff for 58 yards.  Dean's career was cut short by various injuries.

15) Jim Collier.  Collier only played 27 games total, with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins in 1962-63.  A tight end, he returned 1 kickoff for 0 yards, and caught 1 pass for 27 yards, and 0 touchdowns.  He also recovered 1 fumble.  However, in the Giants loss to the Green Bay Packers in the 1962 Championship, he scored his team's only touchdown when he recovered a blocked punt in the end zone.

16) Gary Collins.  Collins was a very good, but not quite Hall of Fame caliber flanker/wide receiver/punter for the Cleveland Browns from 1962-71.  In 127 games he caught 331 passes for 5299 yards (16.0 average) and 70 touchdowns, while rushing 4 times for 60 yards and 0 touchdowns. As a punter he averaged 41.0 yards on 336 punts.  He led the NFL in receiving touchdowns once, and was named to 2 Pro Bowls.  In the Browns shellacking of the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 Championship, Collins put on a show, catching 5 passes for 130 yards and 3 touchdowns.  (To date Jerry Rice tied Collins' receiving touchdown record twice in Super Bowls, and several players have scored 3 touchdowns total (rushing and receiving) in a Super Bowl.

17) Keith Lincoln.  Rather like Collins, Lincoln was a very good but not quite Hall of Fame worthy player in his career at fullback/halfback with the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills from 1961-68.  All told he played in 99 games, and was named All-Pro twice, and to the Pro Bowl 5 times.  In his career he rushed 758 times for 3383 yards (4.5 average) and 19 touchdowns, while catching 165 passes for 2250 yards (13.6 average) and another 19 touchdowns.  He returned 25 punts for 342 yards (13.7 average) and 1 touchdown, and returned 39 kickoffs for 1018 yards (26.1 average) and 1 touchdown.  As a kicker he made 5 out of 12 field goals, and 16 out of 17 points after touchdown.  He also completed 8 out of 17 passes for 240 yards and 5 touchdowns, with 1 interception.  In the Chargers 1963 AFL Championship game beatdown of the Patriots Lincoln had the game of his life, rushing 13 times for 206 yards and 1 touchdown, and catching 7 passes for another 123 yards and 1 touchdown.

     So there they are.  I realize this article will only be interesting to a limited amount of people, but I thought it might be a nice NFL/AFL history lesson.  Perhaps in the future I'll do a post on the unlikely heroes of the All America Football Conference (AAFC) Championship games, or of the United States Football League (USFL) Championships games.  I'm kidding.  I think.


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