Saturday, May 7, 2016

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Pittsburgh Steelers for Cutting Johnny Unitas

May 7, 1933: John Constantine Unitas is born in Pittsburgh. He died on September 11, 2002 in Baltimore. In the intervening 68 1/2 years, he became, quite possibly, the best quarterback who ever lived.

He could have done it for his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. But you don't see his Number 14 on the wall at Heinz Field, do you? (Note: That photograph above is real, not photoshopped.)

The Steelers drafted him in 1955, but cut him before the season started. They also had, in their training camps of the 1950s, Len Dawson and Jack Kemp -- all at a time when Terry Bradshaw was still a little kid.

The quarterbacks they kept for the 1955 season? The starter was Jim Finks. He's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame... as an executive. Most fans who know him as an executive have never seen film of him playing, and I'm sure a lot of them didn't even know that he played.

The backups? One was Ted Marchibroda, who opposed Unitas' Louisville for St. Bonaventure. That school, which dropped football while he was there, allowing him to transfer to the University of Detroit Mercy, hosted the Steelers' training camp in Olean, New York. Why there? Because the athletic director was Father Dan Rooney, brother of Steelers founding owner Art Rooney.

Marchibroda, too, would be an important figure in the history of Baltimore football, coaching the Colts to 3 straight AFC Eastern Division titles in the 1970s, after Unitas retired; and becoming the 1st coach of the Ravens. The other backup that the Steelers kept in '55 was Vic Eaton, from the University of Missouri, who didn't get far in the NFL.

The Steelers' head coach was Walt Kiesling. Once a good offensive lineman by the standards of his time (the 1920s), he was an idiot as a coach. Because of him, the Steelers were the last NFL team to drop the single-wing formation that had dominated football in the 1st half of the 20th Century, before the T formation began to take over in the 1940s.

He seemed to have one play: Handing the ball off to Fran Rogel, a running back from Penn State (making him a "local hero," I suppose). Steeler fans, not happy about this, would chant, "Hi diddle diddle, Rogel up the middle." It usually didn't work.

"Kiesling was an introverted guy," Marchibroda said, half a century later, "who had very little correspondence with the players. It seemed all head coaches in the pros were more distant then, but he was more distant than most. I'm not sure Keez even knew that John was there."

Clearly: Unitas wasn't sent out to take a single snap in the Steelers' exhibition games. So he would spend time after practice getting in more practice, tossing the ball around with Art Rooney's sons: Art Jr., Dan and Pat. They would all remember how good Unitas' arm was, even then.

It would be the late 1960s, and the total collapse of a once-promising team (the Steelers just missed Division titles, and berths in the NFL Championship Game, in 1962 and '63), before Art Sr. finally gave up, and turned control of the team over to his sons. They built a team that dominated the 1970s, including going 4-0 in Super Bowls. If Art Sr. had listened to Art Jr., Dan and Pat in the Summer of '55, maybe "The Man With the Golden Arm" would have been a Steelers legend.

To make matters worse -- Met fans may remember how Omar Minaya made Willie Randolph fly across the country on a roadtrip before firing him and sending him back -- instead of telling Unitas before the last exhibition game, which was in his hometown of Pittsburgh, that he was cutting him, Kiesling waited until they got back to Olean, before Keez dropped the other shoe.

"You know," Unitas later claimed he'd said to Kiesling, "I wouldn't mind being released or being cut if I'd had an opportunity to play and I screwed up very badly. But you never gave me the damn opportunity to do it!" Later still, Johnny U said, "I was really, really ugly with Kiesling. I called him every name I could think of."

Years later, when Unitas was playing in Baltimore under head coach Wilbur "Weeb" Ewbank, Weeb told John about a meeting he had with Nick Skorich, one of Kiesling's assistants. Skorich told Weeb that Kiesling said John was "just too dumb," that he "couldn't keep the plays straight in the huddle."

After the Philadelphia Eagles won the 1960 NFL Championship, coach Buck Shaw retired, and Skorich was named head coach. The team collapsed. Skorich later coached the Cleveland Browns. He never made the Playoffs as a head coach. Who looks dumb now?

Surely, there had to be reasons for the Steelers to cut a hometown guy who turned into such a great quarterback...

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Pittsburgh Steelers for Cutting Johnny Unitas

5. The Mentality of the Times. The following men were great quarterbacks in the NFL in 1955: Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns, Bobby Layne of the Detroit Lions, Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angeles Rams, Y.A. Tittle of the San Francisco 49ers... and that's it. George Blanda is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with those other 4, but for what he did later on in the AFL, not for what he was doing in the Fifties with the Chicago Bears.

This is because it was still a game where running the ball was considered the key. Most coaches in the Fifties thought the same way that Woody Hayes, the head coach at Ohio State University, thought: "There are three things that can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad." (A completed pass, an incomplete pass, and an interception.)

It was Graham, Layne, and, in a few years, Unitas who helped turn it around, and make the passing game a serious weapon in the NFL. Before them, a great quarterback was an outlier: Sid Luckman of the Bears, and Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins. But Graham and Layne paved the way, and Unitas really started the age of the quarterback.

But Kiesling was still coaching the 1920s game in the 1950s. And, while intense loyalty was frequently one of Art Rooney's great virtues, there were times when it was a drawback. "The Chief" was too loyal to old friend Keez, who never got him into the NFL Championship Game.

4. Size Matters. Unitas wanted to play for the University of Notre Dame. coached by Frank Leahy, a pretty good judge of football talent. He had coached 2 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in Angelo Bertelli and Johnny Lujack.

Unitas got a tryout, but Leahy never saw him. Not figuratively, not getting noticed, like with Kiesling, but literally: Leahy never stopped what he was doing long enough to look at Johnny Unitas, who could have been the next great Notre Dame quarterback.

Instead, assistant coach Bernie Crimmins, a former All-American halfback for the Fighting Irish, looked at Unitas. Crimmins said, "Jeez, I like what you do, but, God, you're so small. You're 5-11, 130-some pounds. We're liable to be sued for manslaughter up here."

Even in his senior year at the University of Louisville, he was 6-foot-1, but only around 170 pounds. Playing against defenders who'd been in The War just 10 years earlier, or maybe even Korea more recently than that, ready to look on anybody on the other team as "the enemy," and who had no qualms about purposely injuring an enemy?

After all, then as now, football was "a man's game." Johnny U had the height -- we're not talking about 5-foot-9-3/4-inch Doug Flutie here, or the 5-foot-7 Eddie LeBaron then quarterbacking the Redskins -- but not the bulk.

3. Johnny Who? Unitas was a nobody. Today, a great quarterback coming out of the football-rich region of Western Pennsylvania would have college recruiters all over him by his junior year of high school. Unitas is a big reason why that became true. Conversely, that reputation for producing great quarterbacks was not yet in place.

Lujack was the 1st, and had done well for the Bears, but he was now out of the NFL. And  he had thus far been followed only by Vito "Babe" Parilli, who had starred for Paul "Bear" Bryant at the University of Kentucky, but was, at this point, in the Canadian Football League. (He would later lead the Boston Patriots, as the New England team was then known, into the 1963 AFL Championship Game, and was Namath's backup on the Jets' Super Bowl team.)

Despite having a decent career at St. Justin's High School, major colleges weren't beating down the door to get Unitas in 1950. It didn't help that St. J's was in Pittsburgh's B League, the league for Catholic schools with small enrollments.

Thanks to the contacts of his coach, Max Carey (his real name was James, but he was nicknamed Max after the Baseball Hall-of-Famer of the same name), he got a tryout at Notre Dame. But, as I said, he was turned down for being too skinny. Carey also knew someone at Indiana University, but they took a look at Unitas, and passed on him.

The 2 big schools in Western Pennsylvania? The University of Pittsburgh offered him a scholarship, but he failed the entrance exam. And it appears that Penn State, then coached by Rip Engle with Joe Paterno in his 1st year as an assistant, and not yet the powerhouse it would become with Paterno as head coach, didn't look at him at all.

Nor did any of the other major football-playing Catholic schools of the time, such as Fordham in New York and Boston College, take a serious look at him. The aforementioned Woody Hayes did not recruit him for Ohio State. Nor did the aforementioned Bear Bryant, the great University of Alabama coach, then leading Kentucky to that season's Southeastern Conference Championship. Nor did Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma.

Nor did Bennie Oosterbaan of the University of Michigan, Big Ten Champions. Nor did Blair Cherry of the University of Texas, Southwest Conference Champions. Nor did Pappy Waldorf of the University of California, Champions of the league now known as the Pac-12. Nor did Darrell Royal, the great University of Texas coach, then at Mississippi State University, and a former quarterback himself at Oklahoma under Wilkinson.

Unitas was accepted at the University of Louisville. While that school has produced a few decent college quarterbacks from the 1990s onward, it was not known for football in the Fifties. It wasn't even known for basketball then.

Under the rules of the time, freshmen were eligible at Louisville, giving him 4 years to impress the pro scouts. But they went just 12-22 in his 3 years on the varsity: 5-4 in 1951, 3-5 in 1952, 1-7 in 1953, and 3-6 in 1954, his senior year. Due to injuries, Unitas didn't even have the most passing yards on his own team that last year.

And even when the Steelers went to camp, having drafted Unitas in 1955, he didn't seem to impress anyone. Maybe that was down to Walt Kiesling (or Nick Skorich) being an idiot, but Ted Marchibroda and Jim Finks, 2 of the other 3 quarterbacks in camp, weren't impressed, either, and they both proved to be very smart football men. Marchibroda remembered:

To be honest with you, Finks and I hardly noticed him, either. Later, when we had reason to think back, Jim and I talked about it. What had we missed? Neither one of us could remember a single thing John had done. 

2. The Other NFL Teams. The Steelers drafted Unitas in the 9th round. How far down is that? Today, the NFL Draft only has 7 rounds. Think about what that means: It means that all 12 teams then in the NFL -- the Steelers, the Browns, the Lions, the Rams, the Bears, the Redskins, the Eagles, the Chicago Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants, the San Francisco 49ers, and, yes, the Colts, the team that eventually did sign him -- had eight chances to draft him, and all twelve refused all eight.

Or, should I say, those teams had an average of 8 picks. The Steelers had 6 chances, before finally drafting Unitas with their 7th possible pick. (Unless you really know your Steeler history, you've never heard of any of the 1st 6.)

The Colts actually had 10 chances. So did the Cards, and they didn't go to an NFL Championship Game (under that name or the Super Bowl name) again until the 2008 season. The Lions had 11 chances to draft Johnny Unitas -- they sure could have used him after they dumped Bobby Layne, and they haven't won an NFL Championship, or even reached an NFL Championship Game (or Super Bowl), since 1957. The Rams also had 11 chances, and they didn't reach an NFL Championship Game (or Super Bowl) between 1955 and 1979. The Browns had 9 chances. The Bears, the Packers, the Eagles and the 49ers each had 8 chances. The Redskins had 7, and the Giants only 5.

He was the 102nd pick. One hundred and one players were chosen in the NFL Draft before Johnny Unitas. Or, to put it another way: Take the Steelers, the team that actually did draft him, out of the equation, and there were 95 chances for 1 of the other 11 teams to have drafted Unitas. Ninety-five. Not one of those chances was taken.

To give you more perspective: The Colts did take a quarterback with the 1st pick in the 1955 NFL Draft. Not Unitas, but George Shaw. Who? The guy Johnny U replaced as Colts starting quarterback in 1956.

That was a bonus lottery pick, for having been so bad. With the 3rd pick, their regular pick, the Colts took the Heisman Trophy winner, Alan Ameche of the University of Wisconsin. Just 4 seasons later, Unitas would hand off to Ameche, who would take the ball into the end zone and win the 1958 NFL Championship. They also won the 1959 title together.

Darris McCord was drafted by the Lions, in the 3rd Round. The Giants took Rosey Grier in the 3rd, Mel Triplett in the 5th, and Jimmy Patton in the 8th. But, aside from Ameche, those were the most notable players taken ahead of Unitas.

What I'm trying to say is, If the Steelers were fools for taking until the 9th round to draft Johnny Unitas, and fools for releasing him before he ever took a regular-season snap, it makes things look worse for the 11 teams that didn't draft him, including the Colts, who would sign him for 1956, and change the course of football history.
Why is this man smiling? Because he's playing for Weeb Ewbank,
not sitting on the bench for Walt Kiesling. And it's working.

1. Lady Luck. As ESPN said when they did The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Portland Trail Blazers for Drafting Sam Bowie (instead of Michael Jordan), "The draft is a crapshoot." This has always been true for all 4 major North American sports. But it went well beyond that in football in the 1950s.

Football scouting in the Fifties was a tricky business. There was no ESPN to allow pro scouts, coaches and general managers to see who was a great pro prospect, who was a good college player but might not be adaptable to the pros, and who was someone you should pass by completely. There was no sharing of game footage between college and pro teams. You could see a player on a good day, and then find out that this was as good as he got, and that your draft pick was wasted; or you could see a great player on a bad day, and pass him up.

In other words, you can't blame the Steelers for not knowing what they had in Unitas, for the same reason you can't blame the other 11 teams for not drafting him at all. Nobody knew very much. To find a great player, you either had to have somebody right there in town, making it easy and cheap to send someone to go see him (this was before TV discovered the NFL, and the NFL discovered reveue sharing), or you had to get lucky.

Lady Luck did not smile on the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955, the year the film version of Guys and Dolls featured Marlon Brando singing "Luck Be a Lady." A year later, she did smile on the Baltimore Colts, and a legend was born.

In 1969, the Steelers went 1-13, and the best quarterback in the team's 37-season history to that point was the aging Bobby Layne, who nearly got them into the Playoffs in 1962, then retired. They got the top pick in the 1970 NFL Draft, and, with Art Rooney turning the reins over to sons Dan and Art Jr., they used it to draft a little-known quarterback from a small school starting with L -- in that case, Louisiana Tech, which, like Unitas' Louisville, is better known for basketball (in their case, women's).

The quarterback's name was Terry Bradshaw. Like Unitas, he would be a member of 4 NFL Championship teams, make his team one of the iconic ballclubs of North American sports, and make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But it would be a painful process for T.B. It could have been very different. He could have had Johnny U to mentor him on the Steelers.

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