Lombardi: Forgotten warriors

NFL sheds little light on pre-Super Bowl heroes

After the Super Bowl was over, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy over and congratulated Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney on their team's victory. At one point, I thought I heard him congratulate them on being the third team to win five Super Bowls. My first reaction was to name the other two, Cowboys and 49ers. My second reaction was to ask myself, "So what? Why is that a big deal?"

Then it hit me. To the Commish, NFL history only started in 1967 when the NFL and AFL agreed to merge and play a common championship game. Anything that happened before Tex Schramm and Lamar Hunt worked out the details and ended the almost decade long battle over this country's football loyalties, matters not. Jim Thorpe, Otto Graham, Bronko Nagurski, George Halas, Curly Lambeau, Jim Brown and the man the Super Bowl Trophy is named after achieved football greatness prior to the championship being counted with Roman Numerals. They labored in what the NFL considers ancient history.

Why is that so? Why do the media and apparently the NFL think less of the achievements of the players, coaches and teams that occurred before 1966? Did those players, coaches and teams not play as hard? Are they less talented?

I know that the NFL is the best professional sports league and its marketing is exceptional. When compared to baseball, basketball and hockey, there is little to no comparison. The power brokers at the top of the masthead in New York have proven time and again that they are geniuses. But in this, I think they are wrong.

Why is the 1961 Championship or the 1955 Championship or any other pre-Super Bowl Championship not as valued as Super Bowl XL? How did the last 40 Championship Games become more important than the more than 40 that preceded them. Sure more people watched this year's game on TV and the media attention is infinitely larger, but how is the champion from 1950 any different than the one from this past season?

How are the Steelers five Super Bowl Championships, or the Niners' or Cowboys' five any better than the five NFL titles the Packers won in the 1960s, or the other six they won under Curly Lambeau before the Super Bowl era?

Sure there are more teams now and the players are bigger and stronger, but football is football and the level of competition is just as good then as it is now. It might have been better back then. I would argue and have argued that it was harder to win back in the day than it is now. Fewer teams made the playoffs, so by that standard, the Steelers, who were the sixth seed in the AFC, would have never even had a chance. Also, fewer teams meant that the talent pool was more concentrated, and without free agency, good players stayed with the same team their whole career. It was harder for bad teams to improve and good teams rarely ever lost a player, because they had no recourse. Across the board, teams were better and deeper.

Look at the 1966 season. Here are the league leaders in passing for the NFL and the AFL. I will only look at those guys with 250 or more pass attempts.

Bart Starr, Frank Ryan, Don Meredith, Sonny Jurgensen, Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton, Roman Gabriel, John Brodie

Len Dawson, Tom Flores, John Hadl, Babe Parilli, Joe Namath, Jack Kemp, George Blanda

In addition, Earl Morrell, Norm Snead, Billy Kilmer, Craig Morton and Bill Hart were on rosters in the NFL that year. Between the two leagues there were 24 teams. Fifteen of them had very good quarterbacks.

That is seven guys who later made the Hall of Fame. Almost a third of the teams had legendary players leading them.

Does anyone think there are seven Hall of Fame quarterbacks playing now? Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Brett Favre are probably locks. There are some young guys who might get a look, if they keep it up. But it would be a stretch to say there are seven great ones under center in today's NFL. Given the growth in population and teams, the percentages are not in the modern era's favor. To match the 1966 lineup, there would actually have to be at least nine guys headed to Canton. Even on my most generous day, I cannot name nine guys who should make the Pro Bowl, much less the Hall of Fame. There are not as many good players today as before. I blame the X-Games.

Will the NFL films of tomorrow even remember the great duel between Big Ben and Matt Hasselbeck in 40 years? The best passer on the field that day was a wide receiver. Will the Tom Brady-Jake Delhomme Super Bowl go down as a grand battle between quarterbacking titans? I seriously doubt it. A kicker won that game. Trent Dilfer versus Kerry Collins? Brad Johnson versus Rich Gannon. Are these historical match ups? No, they are not. The hype has overwhelmed the game on the field.

I am fighting a losing battle of course, but it is a noble fight. Jump on the bandwagon and help me get those champions from the '60's, '50's, and '40's the recognition they deserve.

John Lombardi

Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at johnlombardi22@yahoo.com.

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