Thursday, July 22, 2010

Of Greatness, Real And Presumed

In 1950, when the NFL swelled from 10 teams to 12 with the addition of the Browns and 49ers, the NFL must have thought it had invented the sports equivalent of color TV. I mean, 12 teams? The league hadn’t had that many teams since the days when every town in Ohio was required by law to have a team, and a Nesser brother playing on it. Twelve teams was the outer bound of the universe; go any further and one would surely fall off the edge – right?

Possibly. But a funny thing about that huge new NFL. There were 12 teams, and eight HOF QBs. Nine, if you count George Blanda with the Bears.

Think about that for a minute. Twelve teams, and eight or nine HOF QBs.
That would be like every team in the modern NFL having an HOF QB except the Bills, Browns, Jags, Chiefs, Redskins, Lions, Bucs, and Rams. My God! That would make Bruce Gradkowski an HOF QB!

Now, there is a little fudge going on. The Bears had two HOF QBs on the roster in Blanda and Luckman but started Johnny Lujack. The Rams had Waterfield and Van Brocklin and split their snaps. Still, you’d have to think there will never again be a time when the density of HOF QBs is that … uh, dense.

So when you’re smacked in the face with a question like this, you have to ask why. Why were there proportionally more HOF QBs in the ‘50s than any other decade? And once you ask this question you had best strap yourself in for the answers.

The first answer is that the position evolved in the ‘50s, and the game evolved with it. In 1940 teams passed for 13,788 yards. In 1950 they passed for 25,856. For the first time since the NFL’s inception, every NFL team in the ‘50s had a QB who was primarily a passer. More passers meant more passes. More passes meant more passing records. Baugh, Layne, Luckman, Waterfield, Van Brocklin, Tittle, and Graham – and later in the decade, Starr and Unitas -- rewrote the record books. (Trippi and Blanda didn’t.) Halls of Fame recognize rewriters of record books.

Had these QBs played 10 years earlier the game wouldn’t have been ready for them. Had they played 10 years later they would have been Babe Parilli or Frank Ryan.

The second answer is that defenses were slow to catch on. Whenever someone throws three shutout innings in a spring-training game you hear, “Oh, that’s because the pitchers are so far ahead of the hitters right now.” That was the NFL of the early 50s. Frankie Albert was in the shotgun and Norm Van Brocklin was bombing Nagasaki, and Steve Owen was still stuffing nine slow guys in the box. Once the Detroit Lions started to figure out pass defense in 1955 league passing numbers fell fast and far – from 27,593 yards in 1954 to 23,009 in 1955 to just over 21,000 passing yards in 1956. It took the rest of the decade for total passing yards to approach 1950 levels.

The ‘50s also had the greatest concentration of football talent spread among the fewest teams. There were rival leagues at the end of the ‘40s and the start of the ‘60s, but the NFL had the ‘50s all to itself. African-American players finally infiltrated the game, raising the level of athleticism. The perception has been that these HOF QBs were supremely talented players excelling in a realm of supremely talented players. True that, but also realize that pro scouting was in its infancy and the college game was still running antiquated offenses, and many potentially great NFLers went right into beverage distributorship instead of taking the scenic route through Green Bay. It was largely impression that the NFL was at its zenith.

And not just the NFL. The two Golden Ages of Sport in the 20th century were the ‘20s and the ‘50s. Media was infatuated with sport in the ‘50s and got the populace squarely behind them. Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Grantland Rice, Bill Heinz, Dan Daniel, and Joe Palmer were spinning the yarns of Mickey Mantle and Jim Brown and building Bobby Thomson into a Scottish Paul Bunyan. Television in the ‘50s put games and athletes into every bar and living room. Cooperstown and Canton (and Toronto, too) are filled with players from these decades who would have lived the life of Ron Santo, minus the squeals, had they played at a different time. Charlie Trippi and Doak Walker had their equals in Hal Newhouser and Bobby Doerr.

In the pro game, the writers were paying attention to quarterbacks and running backs, largely to the exclusion of everyone else. That’s why there were 13 HOF QBs in the ‘50s (counting Trippi and Blanda but not Jim Finks, who made it to Canton on the strength of assets other than his right arm) and 16 running backs (though teams ran the ball less in the ‘50s) against seven HOF receivers, though the ends and flankers were just as responsible for the offensive explosion as the QBs.

So to sum up, in the ‘50s you had the prime movers of hot offenses playing against bum defenses at a time when great writers were in the business of glorifying QBs and everybody was paying attention.

In fact, by the end of the ‘50s every NFL team had had an HOF QB for at least two seasons – except for the Giants, who were coincidentally one of the league’s most successful teams.

If that seems preposterous now, rest assured it wasn’t preposterous then – but only because it wasn’t true. Every Lions-49ers game did not pit a backfield of two HOFers against a backfield of four HOFers, with John Henry Johnson rotating out on passing downs. We’ve simply made it out to be that way.

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