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The rise and fall (cont.)

Posted: Friday March 4, 2005 12:59PM; Updated: Friday March 11, 2005 11:49AM
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Then came World War II. Fifteen Bears were in uniform in 1942. Two years later the number was up to 43. Chicago won the title in '43, mainly because Sid Luckman had an unbelievable year, with a passer rating of 107.5, using the modern system. And 34-year old Nagurski left his farm in upper Minnesota to come out of a five-year retirement and help defeat the Cardinals with 84 yards on 16 carries in a final regular-season game the Bears needed to reach the championship.

But attrition was hitting the Bears. Some players never came back to the team from the service. Danny Fortmann, a guard on the All-Half Century team, joined the military at age 27, and two years later came out to a career in medicine. Others had noticeably slowed down from their three or four-year stints. And the new AAFC was nipping at some of the stars.

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Standlee, a 230-pound combination of speed and power, The Second Nagurski, they called him in '41, was a different player when he came out of the military in 1946, a 245-pound heavy duty fullback and linebacker, a sluggo. And it wasn't even for the Bears. He had joined the 49ers of the AAFC.

Chicago, aging noticeably but still holding onto a nucleus of former stars, such as Luckman and McAfee, defeated the Giants for the '46 title, then they sagged. Not greatly -- they still could have gotten into the championship game with a victory over the Cards in the final contest in both '47 and '48-but stars were aging and there weren't any new ones to replace them, the single biggest reason why history's dynasties...make that rulers of the cycle ... oh hell, let's just call them dynasties ... collapsed. The brightest newcomer, Notre Dame star Johnny Lujack, groomed to take over for Luckman, had one fine year, then injured his shoulder and was never the same.

1946-55 Cleveland Browns: Four straight AFC titles from '46-49, including the unbeaten season of '48, followed by six straight appearances in the NFL championship game, with victories in '50, '54 and '55. Nine Hall of Famers.

Paul Brown started his dynastic run with what some bitter Ohioans called The Rape of Ohio State. Fourteen Buckeyes joined the early Browns, most of them still with college eligibility remaining. Which guaranteed the Browns a nice, young nucleus with which to build.

They represented excellence in all phases, except the ability to control the roughneck Detroit Lions, who beat them in three championships. But after the '53 season, the Browns' Hall of Fame QB, Otto Graham, was talking about retiring at age 32, pretty advanced in those days. In '54 Cleveland was due for the bonus draft pick, a rotating choice that gave a team the chance to make the first selection on the entire board. To fortify the QB position, Brown took Stanford's Bobby Garrett, one of the finest pure passers ever seen on the Pacific Coast.

There was only one problem. He stuttered. "The guy can't call a damn audible," the coach said. Garrett told him he'd work the problem out. Be patient. Brown was out of patience. He traded him to Green Bay, where he lasted nine games.

After the '54 season, Graham retired. The Browns opened the '55 exhibition by losing to the College All-Stars, one of pro football's ultimate disgraces for a defending champion. They lost three out of their next four, and in a panic, Brown issued the call for Graham. Otto unretired, played in the last exhibition (another loss), and, still rusty, quarterbacked a losing effort in the opener against the Redskins. That was all it took him to get his sea legs under him. The Browns won their next six, and slaughtered rookie coach Sid Gillman's Rams, 38-14, in the championship game.

Graham ended up with his second-highest NFL passer rating, 94.0, and an incredible average of 17.6 yards per completion. Then he retired for real. And the dynasty went kerplop. When you've lived with excellence at the position for 10 years, it's hard to adjust to anything less. George Ratterman hurt his knee in the fourth game in 1956. Babe Parilli separated his shoulder three games later.

Free-agent Tommy O'Connell from Illinois finished the season, and did pretty well, but the Browns were in the tank at 5-7. There was actually a bright spot, though, because now they had the fifth pick in the draft, and Brown was going to use it on Len Dawson, a nifty quarterback from Purdue. The Steelers, with the fourth pick, got there first, so Cleveland had to settle for a fullback from Syracuse named Jim Brown.

Paul Brown, who always had lived by the pass, now found himself coaching a running team. Six years later he was fired by Art Modell, and the following season, '64, the Browns won their final NFL title.

1952-57 Detroit Lions: NFL champions in '52, '53 and '57, lost to Cleveland in the '54 title game. Seven Hall of Famers. The after hours rambles of Bobby Layne, fortified by one of the meanest, nastiest defenses in the league, guys whose names were as tough as the way they played, Darris McCord, Thurman McGraw, John Prchlik, Joe Schmidt, Wild Horse Gil Mains, and anchoring things in the middle, the heaviest guy in the league, 320-pound Les Bingaman, Big Bingo.

"When Alan 'The Horse' Ameche was a rookie fullback with us," said Weeb Ewbank, who coached the double-champion Baltimore Colts, in the late '50s, "he made the mistake of saying he didn't think the NFL was so tough. Then we played the Lions.

"I can still hear that damn Wild Horse Mains.... 'Come this way, horsie. C'mon and run over here, horsie.' They treated him something terrible that day."

They loved whipping Cleveland in the big one, which they did in all three of their title game victories, and that's why I think they belong somewhere in this package. Layne, hard drinking, tough as nails, was the perfect quarterback for an outfit like this, but...dare I say it? ... there were games in which they won in spite of him, not because of him.

In the six-year run cited here, there was only one season, '54, in which his touchdowns (14) outnumbered his interceptions (12). And he ended that one by throwing six picks in the 56-10 championship loss to Cleveland. Next season he played with a bad shoulder. The Lions went in the dumper at 3-9. And missed out the following year when the Bears' Ed Meadows blind-sided Layne and gave him a concussion in the regular season final . And Chicago, which Detroit had defeated, 42-10, two weeks earlier, whacked the Lions, 38-21.

By '57 the coach, Buddy Parker, had had it with this strange, up-and-down team. Parker was actually pretty weird himself. A heavy drinker, in the Bobby Layne mold, he'd begun to go off on strange tangents of single-minded intensity. Luck became a favorite obsession.

"All the preparation you do," he'd say. "All the hard work. And you can still get a guy hurt and have everything ruined. Damn luck." Always gregarious and friendly with his players, he became moody. Finally two days before the first exhibition game in 1957 he cracked.

"This team of ours has been the worst I've ever seen in training," he told a Detroit Boosters banquet, the quote appearing in the 1974 Sports Encyclopedia, Pro Football. "I don't want to get involved in another losing season so I'm leaving Detroit. As a matter of fact, I'm leaving tonight."

And he did, leaving offensive coach George Wilson in charge. The first thing he did was install a two-quarterback system, Layne and Tobin Rote. Neither one liked it, but it saved the season when Layne broke his ankle with two games to go, and Rote led the team to victory in both -- and then against Cleveland in the title game, 59-14. Then, after two games of the '58 season, Layne was traded to Pittsburgh for Earl Morrall and two draft choices.

The Lions' championship days were over, in fact they reached the post season only once in their next 24 years. Their defensive legacy persisted-they always gave the Lombardi Packers a very rough go, for instance-but their balance was gone.

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