The Path To Power How did pro football become, at century's end, the titan of American sports? Eight landmarks, one from each decade of the NFL's existence, were critical to its success

Aug. 30, 1999
Aug. 30, 1999

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Aug. 30, 1999

1999 NFL Preview

The Path To Power How did pro football become, at century's end, the titan of American sports? Eight landmarks, one from each decade of the NFL's existence, were critical to its success

You know about the Black Sox scandal and have been regaled with
tales of the veritable pitching machine named Cy Young. You've
heard about Babe Ruth's called shot and about all the things
that made Ty Cobb a splendid ballplayer and a hateful person.
But when it comes to the origins of pro football, well, there's
just nothing that compares with baseball lore. At the outset pro
football was plagued by fan apathy and was slow to evolve into
the game that became so popular. "For the longest time pro
football was equated to pro wrestling in terms of national
respect," says Wellington Mara, 83, the co-owner of the Giants
and son of Tim Mara, who founded the franchise. What follows are
eight landmarks, one from each decade from the 1920s through the
'90s, that mark the evolution of the NFL into the most
successful league in America.

This is an article from the Aug. 30, 1999 issue Original Layout

THE '20s
Grange puts pro football on the map

Shortly before Thanksgiving Day, 1925, a desperate Tim Mara
boarded a train bound from New York City to Illinois, where he
hoped to find salvation for his failing first-year NFL team, the
Giants. True, the club was drawing 21,000 to the Polo Grounds on
a good day, but as Wellington Mara recalled one day this summer,
"Who knows how many of those people had paid? I carried pockets
full of tickets to my grammar school and handed them out."

Baseball, boxing and college football were the rage in '25.
Earlier that fall New York governor Al Smith had Sunday supper
with the Maras. "This pro football will never amount to
anything," Smith told Tim. "Get rid of that team." Wellington
says his dad might have had to do just that at season's end. But
then Tim took the trip to Illinois.

At the time there were three titans among American
athletes--Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange, the Illini's
electrifying senior running back--and Mara took a Giants
contract with him, hoping to get Grange's signature on it. Just
before heading back to New York, Mara sent a telegram to his
family with the cryptic wording, "partially successful."

Red Grange a Giant? Could it be? "No," says Wellington Mara,
sitting in his office at Giants Stadium. "When he got back to
New York, my father told us the Bears beat him to Grange. His
piece of good news was that the Bears, with Grange, were coming
to play the Giants in New York."

A promoter, Charlie Pyle, was paying Grange $100,000 to play in
18 Bears games on a 66-day, cross-country tour--including five
games in six days, in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Boston
and Pittsburgh. President Calvin Coolidge summoned Grange to the
White House the morning of his game in Washington. Grantland
Rice and Damon Runyan had never stooped to cover a pro football
game until Dec. 6, 1925, when Grange jogged onto the soggy turf
of the Polo Grounds. "The only thing I can equate it to that
I've seen," Mara says, "is the way everybody got so excited this
summer about the U.S. women's soccer team."

The Maras expected a huge crowd, maybe 50,000 in the 55,000-seat
stadium. What they got was an announced crowd of 68,000, the
largest to witness a pro football game. Scores of kids sneaked
through a hole in the Polo Grounds fence, and thousands who
couldn't get tickets gathered on a bluff overlooking the field.
Playing both ways just 20 hours after scoring both touchdowns in
the Bears' 14-7 win in Philadelphia, Grange rushed for 53 yards
and returned an interception 35 yards for a score. Chicago won

Scratch that: Pro football won. "I've heard many people in pro
football say the 1958 NFL Championship Game was the greatest game
ever played," Mara says. "But that game might never have happened
were it not for the Red Grange game. That game gave my father,
and everyone else in the NFL, new hope." --Peter King

THE '30s
The seed for a title game is planted

Though it happened almost 67 years ago, there is much about the
first unofficial NFL championship game that Charles (Ookie)
Miller will never forget. Played on Dec. 18, 1932, the game
spawned significant changes in the passing rules, made hash
marks the law and was such a hit that the NFL was split into
Eastern and Western divisions the next year so there could be an
official playoff for the league title.

But what Miller, who played center and linebacker for the Bears
that day, remembers best is the smell of Chicago Stadium, the
indoor arena where the game was played the day after a circus
had performed there. "You know how animals are," Miller, 89,
recalled late last month in a crisp, authoritative voice. "Oh,
it was a stinking place. Smelled all like horse manure."

A 19-inch snowfall had blanketed Wrigley Field, the original
site of the game, but George Halas, the Bears' owner, was
expecting a profitable gate and was loath to postpone the event.
So the Bears and the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, a franchise
that would become the Detroit Lions and that had tied Chicago
for first place, played indoors before a crowd of 11,198, and
atop trucked-in grass that did not mask the stench left hours
earlier. The field was only 80 yards long, and because it
extended to hockey boards on both sides, every time a play ended
at the sideline the officials moved the ball 15 yards from the
boards. On plays that ended inside the sideline, the ball would
be placed at the spot of the tackle. The following year hash
marks became a part of the game.

"We were just playing a game," Miller says, "but a lot of things
happened that day that changed the course of pro football."

Take the passing rules. At the time a player had to be at least
five yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw a forward pass.
In a scoreless game midway through the fourth quarter, the Bears
had fourth-and-goal at the Portsmouth seven. Time for a field
goal, right? Not when you've got Bronko Nagurski in your
backfield and Grange flanked wide. Miller snapped to Carl
Brumbaugh, who pitched to Nagurski. Just before he got to the
line, Nagurski threw a strike to Grange, alone in the end zone.
The Spartans protested vehemently that the play should not have
been allowed because Nagurski was within five yards of the line
when he released the ball, but to no avail. The Bears won 9-0.
The dispute led to the question: Why shouldn't passes be thrown
from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage?

"What else do I remember about that game?" Miller says. "Halas
was having trouble financially, and the share for winning the
title was $210 per player. I got my money in July." --P.K.

THE '40s
The Bears roll out the T formation

They opened the decade with three championships in four years.
The Bears were the toughest on the field and the smartest in the
coaching department. In fact, it was their introduction of the
modern T that made the most profound change on the game.

Chicago was the only team that had the T formation with a man in
motion. Halas had fooled around with the ancient tight T of the
1890s, but in 1930 he hired Ralph Jones, the athletic director
at nearby Lake Forest Academy, to spiff it up. Jones widened the
linemen's splits, spread one receiver and sent a back in motion,
usually Grange, the left half. He had a feel for this kind of
trickery and would occasionally pivot and motion back the other
way. It was innovative but not particularly devastating, used to
mix up the game plan, sharing time with the conventional single

Enter Clark Shaughnessy, "one of the great innovative minds,"
according to Bill Walsh. Shaughnessy, coaching a dying program
at the University of Chicago, doubled as a consultant for the
Bears. He fine-tuned the T, and the formation became the Bears'
basic offense in 1940. That year, after Chicago walloped the
Redskins 73-0 in the NFL title game, and Stanford, coached by
Shaughnessy, capped an unbeaten season with a Rose Bowl victory,
the T became the new darling of the football world.

Chicago players and coaches spread the word about the T. Halas
and Shaughnessy gave coaching clinics. Hall of Fame quarterback
Sid Luckman returned to his alma mater, Columbia, to help
install the system. By 1944 more than half the college and
professional teams were using it. National champions Notre Dame
and Army called on Luckman to teach it to their quarterbacks,
and during the Army-Notre Dame game of '47, Luckman, whose Bears
would play the Packers the next day, was in the Irish press box
in South Bend helping with the play-calling. By 1949 only a
handful of college programs and one NFL team, the Steelers,
clung to the single wing.

The modern T is still in place, with modifications, of course,
and at 60 it remains the longest-running formation in the
history of the game. --Paul Zimmerman

THE '50s
The upstart Browns crash the party

We were both kids in 1950. Mike Brown was a high schooler, wired
to the Browns, the four-time champions of the All-America
Football Conference, who were coached by his father, Paul. I was
a football-wacky teenager who loved the AAFC and the New York
Yankees, and was hoping that, somehow, in their first season in
the NFL, the Browns could give the defending champion Eagles a
game when the two teams met on Sept. 16.

"We spread our three receivers, Dub Jones, Dante Lavelli and Mac
Speedie, all over the field, in a three-wideout offense,"
recalls Mike Brown, now the president of the Bengals. "The
Eagles' defensive backs couldn't cover them. They didn't hold up
receivers at the line in those days. When the linebackers tried
to help out, we hit them with [fullback] Marion Motley on traps
and draws."

I had talked my mother into driving me to Philly from our home
in New York City for the game. In fact, I still have my program,
so I checked my notes, which I'd written on the back, right
under Robert Preston's ad for Schenley Reserve Blended Whiskey.
"Eagles too slow covering sideline passes...great passing
exhibition by [Otto] Graham...Speedie pro
receiver ever seen...Motley ran well...used sparingly...why not
run him more?" I'd dream about seeing the 238-pound Motley carry
the ball 25, 30 times a game and run up numbers no one had ever
seen. It never happened. As great as he was, Motley was just
another cog in Paul Brown's machine.

The 35-10 victory launched the Browns on their march to the NFL
championship that year, and they would play in the next five
title games, winning two more. Another championship game
appearance (in 1957), plus one in an Eastern Conference playoff,
rounded out their postseason record for the '50s.

The Browns put their stamp on the decade, and on decades to
come, with their innovative approach to the passing game. Widen
the field by making the defensive backs cover greater areas,
take them deep and then bedevil them with breakoffs and
comebacks--and throw the ball from any place on the field.
Cleveland junked the haphazard pass-blocking principles of the
past and introduced cup blocking, with the linemen simply
turning out. That offense jolted NFL teams into switching to the
4-3 defense that remains the standard set today. Scouting that
Browns-Eagles game and shocked by what they saw, the New York
Giants unveiled the 4-3 two weeks later against Cleveland.

"Could these guys play today?" Mike Brown says. "Oh, hell yes.
Graham and Motley would be devastating. Lavelli, Speedie and
Jones had all the speed you'd want, plus they never dropped the
ball. I mean never. They say the linemen of that era couldn't
play today. Too small. Well, the linemen of today couldn't have
played then, either. My father wanted offensive linemen who
could pull and trap and move. They could all run 4.8 or better."

THE '60s
The Boy Czar strikes television gold

Bert Bell died of a heart attack on Oct. 11, 1959, leaving the
NFL without a commissioner. Competent and well-regarded, Bell
nonetheless left behind a becalmed, underexposed league
operating out of a four-person office in suburban Philadelphia
and consisting of 12 teams with a dozen agendas. Attempts to
replace him three months later were predictably strife-ridden.
After 10 days of acrimony and 22 ballots at the Kenilworth Hotel
in Miami, the owners finally agreed on a compromise candidate,
the 33-year-old general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, Pete

As his destiny was being determined, Rozelle waited in a men's
room off the hotel's lobby. "Pete told me that whenever someone
came in, he'd walk to the sink and wash his hands," recalls
former Cowboys president Tex Schramm.

The owners opted for this well-scrubbed wunderkind for one
reason. "They all thought they'd be able to control him," says
Schramm, who was one of Rozelle's closest friends. But Rozelle
soon demonstrated that beneath his handsome tan and genial smile
was a surprising amount of steel.

Halas learned as much early in Rozelle's tenure. In 1962 Halas
broke a league rule and was summoned from Chicago by Rozelle to
NFL offices in New York City (where, as one of his first orders
of business, the young commish had relocated NFL headquarters).
Halas suggested that Rozelle meet him at LaGuardia Airport. Came
the stern reply, "I'll see you in my office at 10 o'clock,
Monday morning." Papa Bear did as he was told; Rozelle fined him

While it was important for the Boy Czar, as he became known, to
establish his authority, that was merely a backdrop for what
turned out to be his most important work: wedding his league to
that great American pastime--television.

In the pre-Rozelle era clubs cut their own TV deals. The new
commissioner's top priority was to persuade the owners of
big-city teams to divide the television loot evenly among all
owners. Even though that sounded an awful lot like socialism,
they agreed. Next, Rozelle went to Congress and obtained an
exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act, enabling the league to
sell all those TV rights collectively to a single network. Did
Rozelle's business plan succeed? In 1962 teams received $330,000
apiece from television. By '64 the figure was $1 million. This
year each team's TV cut will be $71 million.

In the summer of '66 Rozelle was back on Capitol Hill, lobbying
legislators for another antitrust exemption. This one was
necessary for the NFL to merge with a contentious rival.
Competing with Lamar Hunt's upstart AFL was proving fiscally
ruinous for owners on both sides. At Rozelle's urging, the
leagues joined forces. Regarded at first as an anticlimactic
oddity, the Super Bowl--it was known as the NFL-AFL Championship
in its first two years, until 1969--evolved into a national
holiday of sorts. Nine of the 10 top-rated shows of all time
have been Super Bowls.

Permission to merge came at a cost: Congressmen from
high-school-football-crazed regions spearheaded a law forbidding
the NFL from playing on Fridays. "Thus, Monday Night Football was
born," says Schramm, "because we had no place left to go."
Although CBS and NBC turned up their noses at the concept of pro
football on Monday night--"What? Preempt The Doris Day Show?"
asked an incredulous Black Rock executive--ABC took a chance in

In the '60s Rozelle also greenlighted NFL Properties as well as
NFL Films, perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the
history of corporate America. But labor strife, franchise free
agency and interminable lawsuits leeched much of the joy from the
job for Rozelle, who retired in 1989.

When he died of brain cancer seven years later, Rozelle was
eulogized as a visionary, the first modern sports commissioner.
Says Schramm, "He was the right guy with the right temperament
at the right time." Indeed, today's players owe their fortunes
to those squabbling, old-school owners and the compromise
candidate they so thoroughly misjudged. The man they thought
they would lead by the nose instead led their game to
unimaginable wealth and popularity. --Austin Murphy

THE '70s
Steel Curtain: a defense for the ages

He was a Pro Bowl linebacker who manned the right outside spot
for 12 seasons, including the Super Bowl championships of 1974
and '75. But in all his years as a Steeler, Andy Russell never
saw another defense like the one he played on in 1976.

The Steelers started that season 1-4, and a loss in Week 5 was
made worse when Browns defensive end Turkey Jones turned Terry
Bradshaw upside down and slammed him to the turf, sidelining the
Pittsburgh quarterback for two games. What followed was one of
the most phenomenal runs an NFL defense has ever had. In their
remaining nine regular-season games (all victories), the
Steelers gave up a total of 28 points, shutting out five clubs
and allowing only two touchdowns. In an AFC divisional playoff
matchup, Pittsburgh crushed the Baltimore Colts 40-14, but
running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier went down with
injuries, and the punchless Steelers lost to Oakland 24-7 in the
AFC Championship Game the following week.

There had been sturdy defenses, but the NFL had never seen
anything like the Steel Curtain. It was made up of fine athletes
who had great speed and the intelligence to implement the
intricate schemes of defensive coordinator Bud Carson. Carson,
who had arrived in 1972, installed the seldom seen double zone,
with the corners pressing the receivers hard at the line,
bumping them downfield, then passing them off to the safeties.
"You can't believe how many great quarterbacks couldn't read
that defense," he says.

To neutralize the pulling guard, the Steelers cocked tackle Joe
Greene in an odd, tilted stance outside the center. Left end
L.C. Greenwood was a 6'6", 253-pounder who could run the 40 in
4.6. All three linebackers were undersized, but swift.
Athletically, no offensive unit was their equal. Other teams
started drafting speed, along with muscle, to nullify enemy

The leaguewide defensive renaissance left offenses gasping for
breath. Scoring dropped. Enter Schramm, whose Cowboys had lost
to the Steelers in Super Bowl X in January 1976 and who chaired
the league's Competition Committee. Before the 1977 season the
head slap was outlawed; the following year, receivers couldn't
be bumped once they got five yards beyond the line of scrimmage;
offensive holding restrictions were relaxed. But even that
didn't stop the Steelers from winning two more Super Bowls, in
the 1978 and '79 seasons.

Ten of the 11 defensive starters from the '76 team went to a Pro
Bowl at some point in their careers. Four of them--Greene,
linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and right cornerback Mel
Blount--are in the Hall of Fame.

"We put eight defensive players in the Pro Bowl for two straight
years, '75 and '76," Russell says. "I remember one series when
all eight of us were on the field. Jack Lambert started calling
the defenses. The other three guys said, 'What do we do?' Jack
said, 'Just stay out of the way.'" --P.Z.

THE '80s
Walsh's West Coast offense reigns

Everson Walls remembers the beginning of the end with vivid
clarity. On Oct. 11, 1981, the Cowboys stepped onto the
rain-soaked grass at Candlestick Park expecting to administer
their usual whipping to the hometown 49ers. Instead they walked
off shell-shocked by an offensive scheme destined to change the
game. "They caught us completely off guard," recalls Walls, then
a hotshot rookie cornerback on a team that had played in five
Super Bowls during the '70s. "We were slipping and sliding
around, and their receivers were open by five yards on some
passes." With innovative Niners coach Bill Walsh calling the
plays and quarterback Joe Montana executing them with uncanny
precision, San Francisco ripped apart the Cowboys' secondary
like a warm loaf of sourdough and rolled to a 45-14 victory.

The game not only marked the first sign of the demise of
Dallas's Doomsday Defense but also served as a dramatic
coronation of Walsh's system, which came to be known as the West
Coast offense. San Francisco used that victory as a springboard
to a 13-3 season and an epic 28-27 triumph over the Cowboys in
their rematch in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick. The
winning play in that game--the Catch by Dwight Clark--was the
pivotal NFL moment of the '80s, propelling the 49ers to the
first of their four Super Bowl triumphs in that decade and
starting Dallas on a steady slide that culminated with a 1-15
season in '89. But before that stunning regular-season rampage
over the utterly confused Cowboys, nobody, not even the Niners
themselves, took their team seriously.

"The Cowboys' defensive guys kept calling for help," recalls
Mike Shumann, then the 49ers' third wideout. "One guy'd say,
'Get over here,' and the other'd say, 'No, no, no--you've got to
take him.' We sort of ambushed the league that year, and that
game was when we realized we had something wild going. You had
slow, white guys like me and Dwight making defenders look like
they didn't have a clue. Man, it was heaven."

Until then Walsh, who had developed many of his ideas during his
years as an assistant under Paul Brown in Cincinnati and Sid
Gillman in San Diego, seemed more like a mad professor than a
genius. He went 8-24 in his first two seasons in San Francisco
and was hell-bent on vindicating himself and his system. "Bill
thought he would be the successor to Paul Brown, but he was
passed over, and that drove him to build a champion," says
former Niners tight end Charle Young.

Walsh's scheme centered on two basic principles: Give the
quarterback as many specifically timed options on pass plays as
possible, and let receivers adjust their routes to exploit
weaknesses in the coverage. "If Dwight Clark was facing man
coverage," says former Walsh assistant Sam Wyche, "he knew to
turn, plant and slide hard to the outside to get instant

The system required the quarterback to make instant reads and,
if pressured, to dump the ball to his outlet receivers.
Montana's poise, field vision and patience elevated the offense
to an ethereal level. The Cowboys' flex scheme was particularly
vulnerable to the 49ers' quick timing patterns. "It was brutal
for defensive backs," Walls says, "because our linemen were
trained to play the run first and then react to a pass block. We
had [end] Ed Jones sitting a half yard off the ball, and I'd end
up trying to tackle Dwight Clark or Freddie Solomon before our
[pass rushers] even crossed the line."

In the NFC title game Walls was the player covering Clark when
the receiver, using a broken-route adjustment taught by Walsh,
slid across the back of the end zone and soared to make his
famous fingertip grab of Montana's pass. "We had them on the
ropes that day," Walls says. "Joe had thrown three interceptions.
But on that last drive, Bill outsmarted us." --Michael Silver

THE '90s
Vaults open to the new free agents

For decades NFL owners were in a unique and enviable position in
the world of sports: They were flush with guaranteed TV money and
had a choke hold on every player they wanted to keep. That
situation changed forever on Feb. 28, 1993--the day the owners, on
orders from U.S. District Court Judge David Doty, had to turn
loose most of their unsigned players, who were then able to hawk
their services on the open market. Four days later Browns owner
Art Modell began wooing All-Pro defensive end Reggie White, whose
contract with the Eagles was up and who was the cream of that
first unfettered free-agent crop.

Modell sent his jet to Knoxville, Tenn., to pick up White and
his wife, Sara. Modell put them up in an $800-a-night suite at
the Ritz Carlton. Modell had Jim Brown make a recruiting call
after the Whites checked in. Modell had Cleveland Mayor Michael
White make a similar pitch the next morning. Modell handed Sara
a $900 leather coat. Modell banned cursing while Reggie, an
ordained minister, was in the team's offices. "Unbelievable," a
stunned White said after the visit. "It's a whole new world."

Or, as unheralded tackle Don Maggs said, after getting a 500%
raise to defect from the Oilers to the Broncos, "It's capitalism
at work." Thirteen teams chased backup guard Harry Galbreath.
Linebacker Hardy Nickerson got calls from 20 teams. But White
clearly was the prize. He thought he might get about $2.8
million a year, but then Green Bay entered the picture. Though
the Packers were starving to win, Green Bay was a city whose
overwhelmingly white population was not inviting to most black
players. White didn't care. After the recruiting lunacy he saw
in visits to the Browns, the Falcons, the Lions and the Jets, he
welcomed the corner-table-at-the-Red Lobster pitch in Green Bay.
The Packers made White the highest-paid player in NFL history,
at $4.25 million a year.

Everyone laughed at White, who had said he would sign only with
a team that had a chance to win a title; even agent Jimmy
Sexton, who brokered the deal, was afraid White was bypassing
better teams for the money. But in the end White was right: He
helped spur the Packers to Super Bowl XXXI in January 1997, when
they beat the Patriots 35-21. "It turned out just as we said
when we went after Reggie," Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf
says. "I remember telling him, 'Wherever you go, you'll be a
star. We all know that. But if you come to Green Bay and we win,
you'll be a legend.' It happened."

Something else has happened since 1993: More and more players
have taken control of their destinies. --P.K.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CORBIS Groundbreaker Red Grange (with ball) dazzled a record crowd at the Polo Grounds in a 1925 game that may have saved the NFL.B/W PHOTO: PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME/NFL Inside edition The unofficial first title game was played indoors in 1932 on an 80-yard field atop animal dung, but an idea was born.B/W PHOTO: AP/CHICAGO TRIBUNEJuggernauts Luckman (left) directed the Bears' innovative T formation, which became all the rage in the '40s; then Graham (14) and the Browns took the NFL by storm after joining the league in 1950. B/W PHOTO: EVAN PESKIN [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BEN ROSE All for one The farsighted Rozelle convinced NFL owners that it would be in their best interest to divide television revenue evenly.COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Curtains The Steelers' defense was so stingy that rule changes were implemented to help the offense. COLOR PHOTO: ANDY HAYT Perfect fit Montana was the ideal man to run Walsh's novel offense, which gave the quarterback a load of options on pass plays.COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Free to go As the prized object of a leaguewide auction, White set the football world spinning and kicked off a new era of free agency.