Tuesday, January 29, 2008

NFL Mythbusters: Super Bowl III

“The New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, 1969. Besides being perhaps the most stunning upset in the history of sports…Joe Namath's "guaranteed" victory over the mighty Colts paved the way for the American Football League-National Football League merger”

Wayne M. Barrett—USA Today Magazine, Nov. 1999


Barrett’s line is a commonly held belief but it's clearly not true. The AFL and NFL announced their merger plans on June 8, 1966, over two years before Super Bowl III so that game couldn’t have had anything to do with the merger. The two leagues agreed in 1966 to have their champions play in a Super Bowl for the next four years, they instituted a common draft starting in 1967, and a complete merger with interleague play was set for 1970.

Now Super Bowl III nearly did play a huge role in the NFL-AFL merger, but probably not in the way you might think. The merger plan looked especially good to the AFL owners after the Green Bay Packers crushed the Chiefs and Raiders respectively in the first two Super Bowls. The AFL might indeed have been the inferior league their detractors had claimed them to be, but regardless they'd still get to suit up with the big boys permanently and bask in the NFL’s cache. However, when the AFL champion Jets and Chiefs each pulled off shocking upsets in the next two Super Bowls some AFL owners started to have second thoughts. Riding high on their new-found respect and thinking themselves to now be every bit the equal of the NFL, the AFL suddenly considered remaining an autonomous league that would play the NFL in the Super Bowl only. And some NFL owners had second thoughts too. Their 16 teams were in the country’s biggest markets and with the common draft established there would be no more pesky bidding wars for players between the leagues to empty the owners pockets. Just one problem--Paul Brown couldn't have hated that idea more. Until 1963 Brown had been the only coach the Cleveland Browns had ever known. One of the game's great innovators, from 1946 to 1955 the legendary Brown led his team to the championship game every single year, winning 7 championships in all (including 4 in the All-American Football Conference). Brown led his team to two more playoff appearances and only once had a losing record (the year after Otto Graham retired). Yet after becoming the team's new majority owner, Art Modell, foreshadowing his later and greater betrayal of Cleveland, fired Paul Brown after the 1962 season. Ever since, Brown bided his time waiting for a chance to get back in the game. In 1968, the AFL gave Brown their newly created expansion team the Cincinnati Bengals to own and coach. What Brown really wanted was an NFL club but he took the AFL one with the understanding the leagues planned to merge in 1970. With the merger now in jeopardy, Brown’s dream of NFL ownership was about to go up in smoke. PO’d, he threatened to sue if the merger didn't go through as scheduled. Also, with the two separate leagues colluding in that common draft, other legal challenges of an anti-trust nature probably loomed as well. So Pete Rozelle locked all 26 NFL and AFL owners in a room until they all figured out a plan. Al Davis, general managing partner of the AFL’s Oakland Raiders, came up with the winning compromise. The NFL would move three teams to the 10-team AFL to create two 13-team conferences of three divisions each and the three teams that ended up moving (Colts, Steelers, and Browns as it turned out) would get three million bucks apiece. Showing his true jackass self early in his career, Davis then vetoed his own plan, demanding he get veto power over the realignment first! But Oakland's majority owner nicely undercut Davis, overruled him, and voted with the other owners to ratify the new deal. They wound up having Rozelle's secretary draw slips of paper with various combinations of teams out of a hat to determine the lineups of the six divisions.

So rather than “paving the way” for the AFL-NFL merger, the Jets’ win actually helped to endanger the already existing merger agreement. Now the win, especially combined with the Chiefs’ win the following year, did help the public previously skeptical of the merger to see the AFL as equal in quality to the NFL. But the merger would have happened regardless of the outcome of Super Bowl III.

Source: Total Football II.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Greatest Super Bowl Upset?

The Super Bowl hype machine is in full swing and I'm actually hearing speculation that a Giants win over New England would be the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. Well, it would be an upset but anybody who says this can't have much of a grasp of NFL history. The greatest upset in Super Bowl and all of NFL history for that matter has always been and always will be the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

The Colts were favored by anywhere from 19 to 22 points. The Patriots are currently favored by 13 points. So if the betting line determines how great an upset is it can't be this game. If you instead define an upset by the shock of the unexpected outcome it's still Super Bowl III hands down. It's hard to imagine how anybody could be as shocked today by an upset as the fans of the time were shocked by the Jets' win. A few points:

1) There was no interleague play other than the Super Bowl. People widely considered the AFL to be a much inferior league and those impressions were massively reinforced by the results of Super Bowls I and II.

2) The Jets were only the third-best team in the AFL in 1968. The Chiefs and Raiders tied for that league's best record. Those teams were the AFL's first two Super Bowl representatives and they had gotten crushed. Why would the Jets be expected to fare better than the AFL's two powerhouses?

3) The Jets needed a little luck to get to the Super Bowl. The Raiders went 12-2 in 1968 on the heels of their 1969 13-1 season. The Jets managed to edge them out in an all-time classic championship game. Driving for the winning score, Oakland botched a lateral and the players stood around thinking it was an incomplete pass allowing New York to recover it and move on. That win was the inexperienced Jets' first postseason game EVER. Super Bowl III would be just their second.

4) The Colts were a great team. They didn't just dominate in 1968, they had been a perennial contender for a decade. Only one NFL championship game between 1958-1968 did not feature either the Baltimore Colts or the Green Bay Packers. They were the two greatest NFL teams of the era. Many experts thought the 1968 Colts might be the best team ever to play. They had lost just two regular season games in two years.

Most experts considered the AFL an inferior league, composed mainly of NFL castoffs, rejects, and has-beens with a sprinkling of a few star players, closer really to the Canadian Football League than the NFL. The NFL was a man's league of tough running, brutal defense, Nitschke, Butkus, and Lombardi. The AFL was that crazy pass-wacky league featuring Lance "Bambi" Alworth and world-class playboy Joe Namath. Today, everyone's familiar with the "every given Sunday" cliche. Until Super Bowl III however, that phrase did not apply to the AFL vs. the NFL. The Giants almost beat the Pats in Week 17, just over a month ago and the G-Men are red-hot now. So how could a Giants win be anything more than a mild suprise? By contrast hardly anyone expected the Jets to hang with the Colts, let alone prevail. It's still the gold standard for NFL upsets.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Don Shula's Second Half Super Swoons

The Miami Dolphins are about to hire their fourth head coach in the last four seasons, and we all know what that kind of coaching turnover means: the team's floundering and nothing they’re doing is working. Since the forced departure of the greatest coach Miami has ever had, Don Shula, five coaches have combined for three playoff victories. Compare that to Shula’s 17 postseason victories in Miami, including two Super Bowls. In addition to his NFL record 328 career victories (257 with the Dolphins), Shula holds the record for Super Bowl appearances, six (five with Miami), and when you include Shula’s 1972 perfect season, you have one amazing coaching resume. But…

Including the pre-Super Bowl era 1964 championship game along with the six Super Bowls, Shula coached in seven championship games. His teams posted a disappointing 2-5 mark. And taking a very close look at the way his teams performed reveals something that cuts very strongly against any argument that Don Shula is the greatest coach of all time. Here are the scores in those Super seven games:


We see Shula’s opponents outscored his teams by a total of 65 points in the seven games. Not a completely unexpected number given the number of losses. But here’s a surprise. Check out the first half totals:

year1st Half

Despite dropping five of seven games, Shula’s teams cumulatively led their opponents at the half! And that 60-55 total score was not distorted by any first-half blowouts. Shula’s teams only led one game by a substantial margin at the half (Super Bowl VIII) and they only trailed in one game by a substantial margin (Super Bowl XIX). Of his five championship game losses, Shula led at the half in one, was tied in another, and trailed by only a touchdown in two others. Only once, in Super Bowl XIX, was Shula’s team thoroughly outplayed in the first half. His teams led three times and were tied once. He trailed in only three of the seven first-halfs, and two of those were by a mere seven points. Shula’s teams were almost without fail extremely competitive in the first half of Super Bowls. And when you’re competitive in the first-half while losing five out of seven, that’s gonna mean some dismal second-halfs:

year2nd Half

Wow. Not once, even in his two Super Bowl wins, did Shula’s team outscore an opponent in the second half. Not once. Four times his team got shut out in the second half. In his five Super losses, Shula’s teams scored a total of one lone second-half touchdown. Seven lousy points. In four of the five losses, Shula’s teams were outscored in the second-half by ten or more points. Shula’s offenses couldn’t score. His defenses couldn’t shut anybody down. The numbers don’t lie. The pattern is obvious. There’s no argument. In the 1960’s, in the 1970’s, in the 1980’s, without fail, Shula’s teams laid an egg in the second half of a Super Bowl. Every…single…time.

Could one argue Shula’s greatness lay in his ability to coach overmatched teams to a championship game appearance, i.e just getting there was the true achievement? I don’t see how. The 1964 and 1968 Colts were heavy, I mean heavy, favorites to win. The 1971-1973 Dolphins were one of the great teams in NFL history. The 1982 Dolphins led the league in defense and led the Redskins at the half of Super Bowl XVII. Yes, QB David Woodley played horribly, but it was Shula’s stupid decision to start him and then stick with him deep into the second half. Only in Shula’s final Super Bowl game can we say his team probably never had a real chance to win. Montana’s Niners clearly outclassed the Dolphins.

Shula’s teams had chances to win almost every one of those seven championship games. Yet they won only two because they repeatedly fell apart in the second half calling Shula’s big-game coaching into serious question. He’s easily the greatest coach the Miami Dolphins have ever had and obviously Huizenga made a huge mistake in pushing him out, but if you had your choice to pick any coach in the history of the game to win you that one big game how could you justify picking Don Shula? Sorry coach.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Mystery of Jim Plunkett

Jim Plunkett, Heisman Trophy winner, two-time Super Bowl champion, and…actor? Well, if the Internet Movie Data Base (IDMB) is to be believed, the former quarterback has acted in two films: Harlow and The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters. I have no idea who or what the hell The Lemon Grove Kids are but the movie looks to be some low-budget Grade Z piece of crap from the disturbed mind of “Cash Flagg” aka Ray Dennis Steckler, best known for disasters such as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? and Rat Pfink A Boo Boo. But IMDB’s other acting credit for Plunkett is from a real-live legitimate Hollywood movie, Harlow, that, as you might have guessed, was a biopic about 1930’s movie star Jean Harlow. That movie featured one actual movie star, Ginger Rogers, and several other much-travelled actors like Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Bochner, Efrem Zimblast, Jr., and its star Carol Lynley (who was quite the hottie back in her day, certainly hotter than Harlow).

Apparently Harlowmania was as big as Beatlemania in 1965 since Hollywood actually put out TWO different movies that year, both imaginatively named Harlow, about the long-dead screen goddess. Now IMDB credits Plunkett with the role of “Stretch” in the Lemon Grove Kids movie but in Harlow he plays an actual person of note: Stan Laurel. Yeah. Laurel and Hardy. That guy. The one who wasn’t fat. A quick search with ”The Google” reveals that Jean Harlow acted in a 1929 Laurel and Hardy short called Double Whoopee, which was probably not about a menege a trois between Laurel, Hardy, and Harlow. Stan Laurel would have been close to 40 at the time he acted with Jean Harlow. Now when the Harlow crew worked on their movie in 1965, Jim Plunkett was a 17-year-old high school athlete. So, if IMDB is right, the clearly insane producers of Harlow hired a 17-year-old Mexican-American non-actor to play a world famous 40-year-old Englishman. Here’s picture of the young Jim Plunkett:

And here’s one of Stan Laurel:

Wow, they could be twins!

Go figure but I’ve lived this long without ever seeing Harlow (or Harlow for that matter) and I don’t plan to ever see it so I can’t say definitively that two-time Super Bowl champion Jim Plunkett did not play Stan Laurel in that movie. But, I’ve gotta say, the only person less likely to be cast for that part in 1965 was freakin’ Eddie Munster!!! I’d say IMDB probably needs to fix their entry on Jim Plunkett.

Update: Past Interference Gets Results