The 1950s - Decade of Innovation and Technology
With the merger of the AAFC teams into the NFL, the league was poised to change the way that people viewed the game culturally and literally. The 1950s saw a wide variety of changes to the NFL game that would have repercussions that still reverberate today, and none was bigger than the movement of the games to the newly developed technology, the television. As NFL legend Tex Schramm, who would coordinate the merger of the AFL and NFL, would note, “The Fifties were the decade in which everyone became a watcher instead of a doer.” Television ownership rocketed from around 172,000 in 1949 to over 25 million in 1954. The effects on the game of football were beyond imagining.
As the decade progressed and games began to receive increasing interest from fans around the country, two key changes would alter the way that people saw the sport itself. In its formative decades, NFL football had been seen as being excessively brutal, and as lacking in skill and finesse. To get an idea of just how much US culture needed to alter its viewpoint of the game to make it truly successful, before TIME magazine launched a secondary venture called ‘Sports Illustrated’, one of their executives noted in a memo that the audience was likely to be limited to “Juveniles and ne’er-do-wells”. Most injuries took place after the plays ended, in the huge pileups that quickly occurred - in part, as a way of masking what was taking place under the blanket of human bodies - and the level of violence was often excessive. 1955 saw a rule change that stated:
If a player touches the ground with any part of this body, except his hands or his feet, while in the grasp of an opponent and irrespective of the grasp being broken, the ball is declared dead immediately.
This rule change, although seen as minor at the time, altered the game as soon as it was enforced. Pileups were greatly reduced, and the effect was to reduce the rate of injuries to players, particularly (but not limited to) ballcarriers. Over time, the public would also see the game as less vicious and more a contest of skill than of sheer brute force. That increased the likelihood that people would watch it, and let their children watch it.
There was a second change that worked in favor of making the league more palatable to the average American, and its innovator was, unsurprisingly, the immortal Paul Brown. In the second quarter of a game in 1953, Cleveland Browns QB Otto Graham scrambled for a first down and was treated to a late hit by the San Francisco 49ers' Art Michalik. The hit was so brutal that it opened a cut in Graham’s mouth that required 15 stitches (performed without Novocaine, in the true football tradition) to close it. Other face guards had been tried, and had failed. At Brown’s request, Riddell Sports Equipment came up with a clear plastic shield that covered the face and could be attached to the front of the helmet, but it tended to both fog and to split in cold weather. In response, Brown gave the company specific guidelines for what he wanted:
Give me something that will fit across the front of the helmet and will be about as big as my little finger, with tensile strength. I want it so it can withstand a stray foot, or a deliberately thrown fist or elbow, and take away the inclination to punch someone. But keep it light enough to weight less than an ounce.
The outcome was the BT-5 (BT stood for bar tubular), a grey bar that the Browns began to wear in 1954. Other faceguards had been tried in the past, but this was the first to find success with the players as well as the coaches. It was big enough to reduce injury, and small enough to be able to be spat past, a requirement with the players. It was also the first to be mass-produced.
1950 had seen another rule change with far-reaching ramifications: it permitted free substitutions, which allowed more cerebral coaches like Brown, Sid Gillman and Weeb Ewbank to send in plays as well as players from the sideline. The game began to see the Age of Specialization, a trend that marks the essence of today’s game. The passing game, once viewed as an inferior tactic for sissies (it was actually outlawed in football’s earliest days) became a primary weapon and duels were as often fought between coaches as between players. The game opened up, with players playing on either offense or defense (and here’s to you, Spencer Larsen). In New York, the Giants organization boasted an offensive and a defensive coordinator - Tom Landry on defense, and Vince Lombardi on offense, with head coach Jim Lee Howell as the team’s administrator and, often, as mediator between the two men, who deeply disliked each other.
Lombardi instituted something that he called ‘rule blocking’, which an assistant on Red Blaik’s staff at Army called, “A combination of Sanskrit, algebra and infantry tactics.” Actually, it was simply the forerunner of the science of ‘reads’, in which a blocking assignment might be dictated by whether a defender was lined up on your shoulder or right over your helmet. It would be later systematised by Bum Phillips, who added the concept of ‘techniques’ to the standard gap system.
Tom Landry was not to be outdone. According to Michael MacCambridge’s America’s Game, the 4-3 defense, which was sometimes called the 4-3-4 in its early days, was created in the NFL by Landry while he was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. He took it from a variation of the ‘umbrella’ defense that was created by Steve Owen, who had been the Giants' head coach. The umbrella might drop either or both of the defensive ends into coverage or rush them in an early adaptation of the concept that would become improved, adapted and eventually known as the zone blitz. NY had run the umbrella under Owen, and Landry had run it for him as the DC. Under the new head coach, Joe Lee Howell, Landry’s new defensive approach combined the cunning of Themistocles and the tenacity of Leonides. He dropped the middle defensive guard, Sam Huff, back into what we now see as the middle linebacker position, and changed how he used the players on the outside. It was an innovation that would be polished, changed and adapted by hundreds of coaches who came after.
Landry also used the approach of charting opposing team’s tendencies and situational preferences, and taught his players to use ‘keys’ or ‘reads’ to know how the offenses were going to move. Landry was known as ‘Mr. Hi-Low’ for his abrupt and substantial mood swings, but his understanding of the game was remarkable for that time period.
As you might expect, the vast changes in the NFL game also brought changes to both scouting and the NFL Draft itself. For the first time, players were being sought for very specific skillsets and speed as well as power became keys to the game. In response to that growing trend, in 1950 the Green Bay Packers obtained the services of one Jack Vainisi, a young man whose scouting expertise set the team up for their incredible success in the 1960s. Vainisi followed very much in the role set down by Eddie Kotal, staying on the road most of the time, building contacts and relationships with coaches, assistants, trainers and athletic directors all over the US. Vainisi was so dedicated that the story goes that he spent his honeymoon driving through Oklahoma and Texas, searching out new talent with his bride traveling in the seat beside him. Vainisi would bring seven Hall of Fame players to the Pack in only ten years, a list that included Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke and Jim Taylor. Sadly, Vainisi would pass away of heart disease in 1960 at age 33, after scouting for only ten years.
But teams like the Rams, who were ahead in understanding the future of the draft, hoarded picks, scouted small colleges and traditionally all-black universities, searching everywhere for new talent that other teams had never heard of, and other teams were starting to catch on. Some teams continued to use Street and Smith’s for their ‘scouting department’, and they were quickly being left behind. Sid Gillman coached the Rams from 1955-1959, and he contributed the new concept of separating game film into offensive and defensive reels, as well as clipping out plays that showed specific individuals, situations or aspects of the opposing team's tendencies. Some teams began to apply that to the scouting process, obtaining college game film and cutting it to scout the tendencies of potential players. Teams also began to film their own practices, and following in Paul Brown’s footsteps, used it to teach their players how to improve in classroom settings. It was the beginning of the modern Age of Technology, and it would change the fortunes of the game forever.
Late in the decade, the league was showing signs of change in the draft rooms. A young assistant for the Rams instituted the idea of hooking up a phone on the team’s draft table, an idea that brought hoots of derision at first, but which was quickly adopted by other teams who were employing scouts - the draft was still an all-day affair, and access to information was increasingly essential in determining a team’s future performance. The name of the assistant was Pete Rozelle.
Bert Bell, who had replaced Elmer Layden in 1946, was still the head of the league. His title had been changed from president to commissioner, and he obsessively continued to search out ways to increase what we now call parity. With respect to that, he uttered the famous statement, “On any given Sunday...” It was a huge key to keeping the public interested over the course of the season, and Bell would go home to his family on the weekends, proclaiming to his wife that it was already Week 4, and all of the teams were still in contention. Bell had given up on being a majority owner back in the early 1940s, never having been good at coaching or with his money. He had taken a minority share in his friend Rooney’s team, and was happy to be bought out: the commissioner’s job had a then-impressive salary of $20,000. He never lost his obsession with the game, and loved to sit in the stands with ordinary fans, watching the games and listening to their views. Bell understood, from the early days, that the league had to make sure that competition never faded, especially for the teams in smaller markets. He wanted to avoid Major League Baseball’s issue with the Yankees, who had more money and used it to dominate. That has always meant less interest in teams in smaller markets who can’t win consistently, and Bell wanted the NFL to thrive in every city that had a franchise.
The league also hired an ex-FBI agent by the name of Austin Gunsel, who hired an ex-FBI agent for every city in the league. Gunsel and his men were charged with investigating potential and current players to make sure that no surprises or problems arose. He was so good at doing so that a new term, ‘a gunsel’, meaning a hard man, an enforcer, emerged briefly in the public slang lexicon. Gunsel’s work was the forerunner of the extensive background checks that are now taking place with respect to every potential draftee. When he was drafted, Warren Sapp was heard to exclaim that the teams had obtained records of his behavior and activities while in the 8th grade. This, too, was the emergent shape of that which was to come.
As the decade wound down, things were good in the NFL. Attendance had stood at an average of 23,196 for the 60 games in 1949. By 1959, that had risen to an average of 43,617 fans for the seventy-two games of that season. The public was increasingly willing to embrace the much-changed game, and television had brought unexpected and unforeseen wealth to the owners' coffers. For the first time, teams might show a profit, rather than being drains on the owners' pockets.
Amidst all of the growth and changes, however, the specter of a new league once again appeared on the horizon. A well-funded second league, the AFL, came forth to challenge the supremacy of the NFL. The NFL predictably dismissed the issue at first, but would quickly find themselves once more in bidding wars for players. The upcoming decade would continue the changes that had evolved in the 1950s. The sixties would be the decade defined in great part by two things: the conflict between the AFL and the NFL, a conflict that would shape the future course of the league, and from that, the emergence of the Super Bowl. We’ll pick it up there in the next installment. I’ll see you then.