Friday, November 16, 2012

A Kiick in the Pants

Oakland Raiders vs. Miami Dolphins at the Orange Bowl, September 22, 1975

There was a lot of history incumbent on this game, the first one on the Monday night schedule of 1975. In the 1974 playoffs, the Raiders had dethroned the two-time-champion Dolphins on the infamous Sea of Hands play, with a tumbling Ken Stabler finding Clarence Davis for the game-winning touchdown. Subsequent to that, the Dolphins lost Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the Memphis Grizzlies; this would be their first game of the WFL era.

Blanda, Otto: Chuffed
For the Raiders, this was the first game in their entire history without longtime center Jim Otto, who had moved upstairs to become their business manager. Literally, this was the first Oakland Raiders game that Jim Otto didn't play in. Ever. (Howard Cosell noted that Otto was now reduced to complaining that dinner for the Raiders cost eighteen and a half bucks per man.) Otto didn’t exactly retire, and he didn’t get released: The team just started playing Dave Dalby at center, and let Otto sit on the sidelines in preseason until he got the message. He must have been totally chuffed to spend the evening on the sidelines talking to George Blanda, who was more than ten years older than Otto, but still had a slot on the team. Ray Guy, though, had taken over the kickoff duties.

The two constants for these teams were the coaches, Madden and Shula “his indomitability etched in his visage,” said Guess Who - maybe the most recognizable coaches in the game along with Landry and possibly Noll. The booth team talked about how Madden looked as dapper as ever, but I always thought he dressed like crap, white belt or no.

Jerry, Betty: Sloshed but unhit
Actual American history intruded on the game as well. That afternoon, Sara Jane Moore fired a shot in the direction of President Ford, following in the footsteps of assassination-minded babe Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme 17 days earlier, and the broadcast switched to Harry Reasoner for a full report at halftime. (This wasn’t on the tape I watched.) In the fourth quarter, ABC News broke away from the game to show President Ford addressing the press corps about the situation, a visibly sloshed Betty at his side, as we missed the guts of an ultimately futile Dolphins comeback drive.

This was Alex Karras’ second year in the MNF booth, and he had become the Otis Sistrunk bureau chief, after famously declaring Otis a graudate of the University of Mars the year before. In reality, Sistrunk, who grew up in a very poor family, was lucky to finish high school and had to go to work in a warehouse when he otherwise might have been playing college ball. Of course, Cosell needled Karras into saying something every time Sistrunk – his jersey majestically untucked- did something in the game, which he did with great regularity.

The game itself was kind of anticlimactic: The Raiders jumped out to a 17-0 lead, then held on for a 31-21 victory. Despite the legendary MNF production values, the broadast itself wasn’t very good. At the end of the third quarter, with the Dolphins mounting a furious comeback, Miami receiver Howard Twilley caught a pass right at the goal line as he was coming back toward Bob Griese. It looked like a touchdown to me – Howard Cosell belatedly agreed – but the ball was spotted at the one. Incredibly, there was no replay of any kind until after Don Nottingham crashed across the goal line on the next play, and then it was only the same inconclusive angle from which we had originally seen the play. They did however, get a good shot of a Dolphin assistant trainer, coming on to help Nat Moore off the field, wearing cutoff denim shorts. Hey, it was the '70s.

The broadcast's one shining moment was a brief segment with William Shatner in the booth. Shatner, fresh off his triumphant turn in Big Bad Mama, was starring in a new ABC series called Barbary Coast, which had premiered two weeks earlier. It didn’t even last as long as the NFL season.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Outlaw Country

Raiders vs. Falcons, October 14, 1979 at the Oakland Coliseum

On paper, it seemed like a good game: 1979 was part of a brief window of competence the Falcons displayed in the Steve Bartkowski era, and the Raiders in the 1970s were always fun. But not only was the game a blowout, but it wasn’t even particularly interesting. The Raiders were in transition; John Madden had retired before the start of the season, leaving Tom Flores with his blow-dried hair and lapels the size of a small child on the sidelines. Freddy Biletnikoff had retired. Otis Sistrunk had gone to wherever the Otis Sistrunks of the world go to.

Plus, Cliff Branch was absent with some sort of illness – Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier were highly suspicious of whatever was ailing Branch – leaving Rich Martini as the No. 1 wide receiver for Kenny Stabler. I never heard of him either. This was one of five  career starts for Martini, a rookie seventh-round pick out of Cal-Davis, and he hauled in six passes for a career high. (The Raiders did have Raymond Chester and Dave Casper starting in a two tight-end set, plus rookie Todd Christensen playing on special teams, which has gotta be the greatest collection of tight end talent any team has ever had.)

At one point, the cameras spotted Waylon Jennings, or someone looking an awful lot like him, on the sideline, producing the following conversation:
PAT: Waylon Jennings!
TOM: All right!
PAT: That is not of course Waylon Jennings. Oh, it is! That’s Martini [making a grab near the sidelines]. A couple of weeks ago, we had a person we thought was Captain Kangaroo, turned out not to be the Captain. And I wasn’t really sure if that was Waylon Jennings or not.
TOM: Couldn’t tell with the shades. I know that’s Ken Stabler.

There was a real C&W vibe to the entire proceedings. Falcons coach Leeman Bennett was not just wearing a trucker hat but had a big chaw in the side of his mouth, leaving him as a perfect emblem of Atlanta in the 1970s.

As far as the game goes, the Raiders leapt out to a 19-0 lead in the first half, as Falcon kicker Tim Mazzetti missed two field goals. They made it 26-0 on the opening drive of the second half, then stretched it out to 50-12 as Mazzetti missed two extra points. He finally converted on a garbage-time TD that made the final 50-19. I kind of assumed Mazzetti was going to be cut after that performance, but Bennett kept him around, and kept him even though the next week against the 49ers, Mazzetti went 0-for-2 on extra points. He hung on kicking for Atlanta all the way through the 1980 season.

The biggest thing about this game was that the newly retired Madden, who was already doing games for CBS, did a brief interview at halftime, then sat in with Brookshier and Summerall for the entire second half. He wasn’t a finished product – he didn’t say doink even once – but he was clearly, right out of the gate, an astonishingly good broadcaster. He knew everything the Raiders were trying to do, and why it was likely to succeed or not, without ever coming off as a know-it-all, or even trading all that much on his position as their former coach. He was just very observant, very good with the language, and a lot of fun.  
According to an unconfirmed report I saw on Wikipedia, CBS decided at this point that Madden needed to be on their A broadcasting team, and the only question was who to pair him with. The decision came down to Summerall or Vin Scully, and they decided the laconic Summerall would mesh well with the loquacious Madden. That was probably the right choice, although Scully was also extremely good at football. The most important thing about this game is that here, October 14, 1979, is where Summerall and Madden first worked as a team. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Hour of Our Death

Vikings vs. Cowboys at Metropolitan Stadium (Divisional Playoffs), December 28, 1975
One thing I’m interested to discover in watching all these old games is when exactly football players decided it wasn’t macho to wear long sleeves in cold weather. The 1975 Cowboys-Vikings playoff game was played in very cold conditions – you could see Bud Grant’s breath, which was helpful in that it reassured the viewer that he was actually alive. One of the contrasts to today’s game is that all the players were wearing long undersleeves, with the notable exception of Roger Staubach. I think he and Preston Pearson were the only players on the field in short sleeves.

It seems to me that there was a single game in there that was a turning point, when the players decided it would look unmanly to take the field in short sleeves, although I can’t recollect exactly when that was. Whenever I watch a cold-weather game nowadays, I make a point of rooting for that small handful of players who are sensible enough to dress for the conditions.

Speaking of uniforms, the Vikings jerseys from this game – from this era – were a rich, saturated purple, looking gorgeous even on the several-generation videotape I watched the game on. The Falcons uniforms had a similar texture to them, with a glorious rich red. I think the stretchy mesh jerseys of today don’t hold their colors nearly as well.

Metropolitan Stadium appears to have been a crummy place to watch a game. With the football field situated in the center of the baseball field, the sideline stands were a long way from the action. Watching the game on TV, you get an enervated feeling because of that, with long swaths of tarpaulins and snow extending back from the sidelines. The handheld sideline cams showing the coaches would catch the industrial-looking scoreboard with its steel girders, or even gray sky from the open corners of the stadium. Plus, it looks really cold.

For some reason, CBS put Gary Bender and Johnny Unitas on this game, rather than Summerall and Brookshier (who may have been at the Rams/Cardinals game the day before) or Vin Scully and George Allen. Scully and Sonny Jurgensen would do the Rams/Cowboys NFC Championship the following week. Scully, by the way, was a great football announcer; I may be a minority of one here, but I prefer his work on football to his work on baseball.

I haven’t said very much about the game itself, I know. I can remember watching this game as a very young Vikings fan and being totally bummed out about the ending, first by Drew Pearson’s amazing sideline catch at the 50 on a fourth and 17 with 37 seconds to go, then by Pearson’s TD catch two plays later.

In truth, though, the Vikings didn’t really deserve to win this game. Their first touchdown came after a Cowboy rookie offensive lineman named Pat Donovan stupidly touched a bouncing Vikings punt on his own three-yard line, leading to a Vikings recovery and a quick score. On top of that, it sure looked to me like the Vikings interfered with the man trying to catch the punt, who had signaled for a fair catch. In the end, the Cowboys grossly outgained the Vikings, 356 yards to 215.

Something else you may not know about this game: With 14 seconds left, after the Cowboys scored the winning touchdown, field judge Armen Terzian – who had just decided not to call offensive pass interference on Drew Pearson - got hit by something thrown from the stands and went down like a shot. He would eventually be led off the field with a big white bandage around his head.

Bender speculated that the instrument of destruction was a pop bottle, and Unitas went all “Minnesota, love it or leave it.” He said, “There’s no room in this country for that kind of behavior,” then started rambling on about “Argentina, where they stab the soccer players and stuff like that.” You tell ‘em, Johnny U.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The John Lennon Game

Patriots vs. Dolphins at the Orange Bowl, December 8, 1980

This was a fairly desultory affair for a Monday Nighter, with a quarterback matchup pitting David Woodley against Matt Cavanaugh, and not a whole lot happened till the end. The Patriots, I had long since forgotten, had added Chuck Foreman as a third-down back, and for some bizarre reason, every time Foreman appeared in the game, Howard Cosell loudly wondered why in the world the Pats weren’t using him more often. I guess he could empathize with a faded big name who was clearly no longer capable of getting the job done.

Foreman was totally washed up at this point; having lost his job as the Vikings’ starting running back in 1979, when he gained 223 yards at an average of just 2.6 yards a pop. This would be the last NFL game of his career. The Patriots also had Harold Jackson on the roster, in an apparent attempt to reunite the 1975 NFC Pro Bowl team.

One of the best things about the tape I watched was that the commercials were intact. I always prefer to have the commercials on the games I watch, to provide the full cultural context of the moment. I particularly enjoy seeing which celebs were endorsing products at that point: Here we have Orson Welles for Paul Masson wines, Suzanne Somers for Ace Hardware, Bruce Jenner for Minolta. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice any future stars working their way up in the business, though. The absolute pinnacle in this regard was the 1970 NFC Championship between the Cowboys and the 49ers, which featured an up-and-coming Vic Tayback for Edge and a down-and-outing Rod Serling for Ford. Seeing the Ford spot really made you appreciate what yeoman work the Twilight Zone staff did on trimming Serling’s eyebrows.

Of course, late in the fourth quarter, this game became part of history. There's a legend that has grown up around it, fostering the notion that the person who broadcast the news of the murder of John Lennon to the American public was Howard Cosell. Last year, ESPN devoted an entire special to the role played by Monday Night Football on that terrible night.

But by the time Cosell got around to telling the nation what had happened, many people already had a pretty solid inkling. On the telecast I watched, taped off the air from the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, with three minutes left in the game, there was a special news bulletin reported via crawl, noting that "Former Beattle [sic] John Lennon" had been shot. The text appeared just as the Dolphins were connecting on a deflected touchdown pass that a surprised Nat Moore snared at the side of the end zone to tie up the game at 13-13.

It wasn't until the Patriots were lined up for a potential game-winning field goal, with just three seconds left in the game, that Cosell made his fateful announcement. That was about 12 minutes in real time after the crawl had appeared in Baltimore. Clearly, many football fans in Charm City - and presumably elsewhere around the country - knew Lennon had been shot or even killed before Cosell said anything about it.

The Dolphins blocked that kick, by the way, sending the game into overtime, to the obvious dismay of Cosell and Frank Gifford, who clearly could not fathom how they were going to shift gears back into the excitement of professional football. Fran Tarkenton, the third man in the booth, just seemed oblivious.

Part of this may be due to the lag between the initial reports, which were simply that Lennon had been shot, and word of his death. On the other hand, there couldn't have been too much time in between, since he was reported DOA at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. One wonders if the shooting of a Beatle would have been enough to disrupt Monday Night Football, as opposed to the death of one. I really don't know.

In overtime, the Dolphins won the toss, Woodley connected with Duriel Harris on a long over-the-shoulder pass, and Uwe von Schamann kicked a game-winning field goal on the next play, sending all those Dolphin fans home to find out there were only three Beatles left.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Vin Scully: "What a great show, 'Logan’s Run.’ Mind-bending adventure. Eight p.m. eastern, seven p.m. central and mountain time."

Alex Hawkins: “I like it. That mind-bending – I like it.”

From the fourth quarter of the Cardinals vs. Cowboys game at Busch Stadium, October 9, 1977

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's Boxing Day, Charlie Brown

Redskins vs. Saints at the Superdome, December 26, 1982

In the waning days of the misbegotten nine-game NFL schedule of 1982, the woeful Saints still had some kind of shot at the playoffs when this game – from a belated Week Eight – was played. But the Redskins were the best team in the league, the eventual Super Bowl champs, and the Saints were saddled with Guido Merkens at quarterback, filling in for the injured Ken Stabler. I’m not sure what exactly was wrong with the Snake, but he had been 10 for 29 with 88 yards and five interceptions in the previous two games combined, so it probably wasn’t a bad idea to get him out of there.

The Saints had tried to make a wide receiver out of Merkens in 1981 before shifting him back to QB in 1982. This would be his only start under center for the Saints, and he played about as well as you'd expect a guy named Guido Merkens to play, going 9 for 24. His lead running back on the day was Jimmy Rogers, and I had to listen closely to the announcers to make sure they weren’t saying “George Rogers,” the Heisman Trophy winner who had been the Saints No. 1 draft choice in 1981, and a big star that season. I guess he was hurt, although the announcers weren’t any more forthcoming about that injury than they were about Stabler’s.

Those announcers were Tom Brookshier and Wayne Walker. Brookshier had been half of CBS’ lead NFL team for years, alongside Pat Summerall. But when John Madden moved into broadcasting, it became clear that he was a star in the making, and CBS realized he needed to be on their A team. They considered teaming him with Vin Scully, but decided the laconic Summerall would mesh well with the hyper Madden. They were right.

Summerall and Brookshier, both ex-players, made a terrific team on their own, and it’s kind of a shame Brookshier had to be demoted. As a consolation, CBS moved Brookshier into play-by-play, which was his role for this game. And it pains me to say he was not very good, for a simple reason: He couldn’t shut up. He was not exceptionally long-winded as a color man, so apparently he thought it was the job of the lead announcer to talk constantly: “Guido Merkens, out to the side, now he’s gonna do a little dance, he’s a very good athlete, now he’s gonna run for the first, or is he?” That’s how he called a third-down scramble by Merkens. Enough already.

Wayne Walker, for his part, sounded like an insurance executive. He was a longtime linebacker for the Lions and did the 49ers games on the radio for years. I can't say he seemed very enthusiastic about this game.

There was a horrendously unjust call in this game, when Joe Theismann threw a pass down the sideline for Charlie Brown, who was out of bounds when the ball came down. But it was tipped by Saints DB Johnnie Poe, and Brown, whose feet were out of bounds when he first touched the ball, was able to get back in before he made the catch and ran it in for a touchdown.

The rule is that a receiver can come back in bounds and make a catch if he’s not the first person to touch the ball, which is technically what happened here, but it just points up that the rule needed to be tightened. Someone downing a punt near the goal line needs to establish himself in the field of play before he can down the ball at the one; that would be a nice precedent to use for this type of play. I’ve never seen another catch where you had to watch the replay to make sure the receiver got his feet back in bounds before he had full possession of the ball.

The Redskins won, 27-10, in a game that didn’t feel nearly that close. Guido Merkens would start one more game at quarterback in his career, as a scab for the Eagles in week three of the 1987 season. He got plastered by the Bears, 35-3.

The Hands of Time

Speaking of the Giants and Eagles, the two teams also appeared on the first season of Monday Night Football, on November 23, 1970. And as time was winding down at Franklin Field, they kept flashing to the scoreboard and the clock... which had this big hand sweeping around.

This was in 1970! Man had walked on the moon, and the NFL was still keeping time with a second hand.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Miracle at the Meadowlands

Eagles vs. Giants at the Meadowlands, November 19, 1978

I was initially not very excited about watching this game, not so much because it involved two mediocre teams (the Giants came in at 5-6 and the Eagles at 6-5, though the Eagles rallied to make the playoffs as a Wild Card) but because I knew who won, the final score, and the very play that ended the game. I much prefer to watch games whose outcomes are a mystery to me.

The mythology around this game holds that it was the nadir of Giantsdom, resulting in the teardown that led directly to the Parcells-led renaissance, but that wasn't quite true. The loss dropped the Giants to 5-7, on their way to a 6-10 finish. It did lead to coach John McVay's firing, but he was replaced by Ray Perkins, not Parcells, who didn't arrive until 1983. By my count, there were only two members of the Giants Super Bowl team on the field for the Miracle: Harry Carson and Brad Benson.

Sure enough, the game seemed like kind of a bore, with the Giants jumping out to an early 14-0 lead then cruising along with a 17-6 lead until late in the fourth quarter. Then, things got very interesting, with Ron Jaworski leading the Eagles down the field for a touchdown with about five minutes left. Twice the Giants seemed to have the drive stopped only to commit a huge penalty on third down (pass interference against Harold Carmichael and roughing the passer on Jaworski), although in neither instance did CBS have the wherewithal to show us a replay of the foul. With Don Criqui and Sonny Jurgensen in the booth, I think we can assume CBS assigned this game to its last-string team. Criqui at one point did note that Carmichael, who was of course six-foot-eight to begin with, like to go around in his off-field hours in high heels and a feathered hat, which must have made him clear seven feet.

The touchdown brought the Eagles to within 17-12, but Louie Giammona couldn’t handle the snap on the extra point, and in the ensuing confusion, kicker Nick Mike-Mayer tried to throw a pass and ended up on the ground with some kind of leg injury, his season over. This would have tremendous implications on the Eagles’ season going forward, but at the moment, it seemed kind of irrelevant; the Eagles were going to be down a TD whether they made the XP or not.

When the Giants started running the ball, up by five, with five minutes left in the game, I figured I knew exactly how this one was going to end. But then Giants tailback Doug Kotar fumbled, and the Eagles recovered on the Giants 30, with just over three minutes to go. Suddenly, I didn’t know what was going to happen. The Eagles (who would have been down by just a field goal if they hadn’t honked two extra points by this point) started driving, but one of their running backs (I think it was Mike Hogan) coughed up the ball – only to have an Eagles lineman fall on the ball. Then Jaworski rifled a ball off a receiver’s hands into the hands of Giants DB Odis McKinney. With 1:22 left, the Giants took over on their own 10. The Eagles had one timeout left.

On the first snap, Jersey Joe Pisarcik just fell on the ball, only to get crunched by Eagles linebacker Frank LeMaster. The Eagles took their last timeout. On the next play, perhaps to avoid getting crushed, Pisarcik handed off to Larry Csonka, who tore up the middle for 11 yards. The clock was still ticking; the Giants needed to run one more play. CBS rolled the credits. Pisarcik took the snap and turned to hand off again to Csonka, who wasn’t expecting the ball and ran right past him. It deflected off his elbow and fell to the ground. Herman Edwards scooped up the ball and ran in untouched.

One wonders why Csonka was in the game in the first place. Even within the Giants committee of running backs, he was clearly a backup. The 11-yard run was only his second carry of the day. Maybe McVay felt like he needed some veteran presence to help close out the game.

“An incredible development!” Criqui screamed. The cameras caught Dick Vermeil completely blissed out, hugging random players, but they never did show anyone in the stands. It would have been fun to see Giants rooters staring into nothingness.

Special thanks to Dan Lee for his invaluable assistance