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3 thoughts on 60th anniversary of the “Greatest Game Ever Played”

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You’ll hear quite a bit this week, probably, about the 60th anniversary of the NFL Championship Game that Sports Illustrated called “the best football game ever played,” between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958. The NFL gamely tried to capitalize on the anniversary by scheduling the Colts and Giants to play Sunday, near the anniversary, but the Giants aren’t at Yankee Stadium anymore, and they play in New Jersey, and the Colts moved west to Indianapolis, and Sunday’s game was in a dome in Indiana. But I’m writing today to try to put in perspective exactly what the game meant to football, and the significance it has to today’s game.

I think pro football would very likely have grown to the biggest sport in America. That game was in the NFL’s 39th season, so there would have been plenty of time for the game to explode, and it would have.

But I believe there are three things about Colts 23, Giants 17, in overtime, that should be everlasting. They might not be in the order you’d think.

First, about the game, one of the first seen by a national TV audience and played before about 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium: The Colts blew a 14-3 halftime lead and were down 17-14 when they took the ball at their 14-yard line with 1:56 left. Johnny Unitas drove the Colts to the Giants 13, where Steve Myrha kicked the tying field goal with seven seconds left. Now the first overtime game in NFL history was set. The Colts won the toss, and Unitas drove them the length of the field in the gathering Bronx darkness, in the (at the time) cathedral of American sport, and running back Alan Ameche rushed the final yard through a huge hole. Huge Colts fan Ernie Accorsi—later the GM for both teams—has a photo in his Manhattan apartment today of a slump-shoulder Unitas, always emotionless on the field, walking with his back to the end zone off the field. Just another day at the office for him. But those two drives cemented his legacy as one of the greats.

It played a huge role in the immediate growth of the game. In 1958, there were 10 pro football teams. In 1960, there were 21, with the birth of the American Football League, and by 1968, there were 26. In a decade, pro football experienced 160 percent growth. As Michael MacCambridge would write later in the book America’s Game, Lamar Hunt, the son a billionaire Texas oilman, was searching for a sports team to buy in 1958. When he watched that championship game in a Houston hotel, that clinched it. The college game, with an ethos on physical running games, was king at the time, but the drama of an overtime game coupled with Unitas’ passing mastery and a more wide-open offense in pro football sold Hunt. As he told MacCambridge: “But clearly the ’58 Colts-Giants game, sort of in my mind, made me say, ‘Well, that’s it. This sport really has everything. And it televises well.’ “ He was a key to formation of the AFL and became a driving force behind so many key pro football things: revenue-sharing of TV money, renaming the title game the “Super Bowl,” and growing the game internationally. The AFL was vital because it was a maverick league in a restive time in America, the sixties. Joe Namath became a look-at-me American icon; Al Davis got his start in the pro game in Oakland. Those people, and the game itself, were huge growth engines.

America loved stars, and this game had them, in a Hollywood setting. As Accorsi said: “The setting—you just can’t contrive it. Yankee Stadium was the cathedral. When the Giants walked into the stadium, their status went up about five levels. That day, the aura of the twilight of that scene, with the famous Yankee Stadium background, people all over the country seeing it, was huge. The Giants’ quarterback, Charley Conerly, was the Marlboro Man on ads everywhere, Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall of the Giants were on the radio in New York, Johnny Unitas was about to be a star.” Seventeen Hall of Famers were on the field that day. It was Vince Lombardi’s last game as a Giants defensive coach. After the game, for the first time, the top-rated TV show in America, The Ed Sullivan Show, had a football player on the stage live in New York—Ameche, who score the winning touchdown. “At the time, the big games in football were Army-Navy and Notre Dame-Southern Cal,” Accorsi said. “The ’58 Championship Game changed that.”

Nationally, the game felt like the first pro football game to have buzz. President Dwight Eisenhower watched from Camp David. Vice president Richard Nixon watched from Arizona—and wrote Gifford a letter after the game empathizing with him on the tough loss. There are varying estimates about the TV audience nationwide, but it appears that at least 24 million Americans in a country of 175 million were watching at least some of the game on the Sunday afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s, with no sporting competition on TV that day. It was a good advertisement for the product. At the game, an emotional commissioner Bert Bell said he never thought he’d see a day when his sport was as big in the country.

Today, most of those things—the stars, the TV, the public love of the game—are taken for granted. They trace back to a gloomy afternoon in the Bronx 60 years ago this week.

Read the rest of Football Morning in America by Peter King

NFL fans apparently don’t want an 18-game regular season

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In the news this week, as the league gets back to business for the 100th season of American professional football:

• The owners and players meet Wednesday in another formal bargaining session for a new CBA. A three-day meeting is scheduled between the NFL’s Management Council and the NFLPA’s Executive Committee (a 10-player unit including president Eric Winston and VPs Richard ShermanBenjamin Watsonand Adam Vinatieri). This will be the fourth bargaining session between owners and players this spring/summer, with the hope being the two sides can reach an agreement on a new bargaining agreement in 2019. (The CBA has two more seasons to run, and expires in the spring of 2021.)

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told CNBC that it is “certainly our intent” to try to get a new CBA before the start of the season. In a round of calls Saturday, I got some optimism from a team source who felt the chance of making a deal on a new CBA was 50-50 this year if the union would stick with the current economic formula of the game; currently players get about 47 percent of the game’s gross revenue.

But I talked to a source on the player side who wasn’t nearly as hopeful, in part because he felt the players need a bigger cut of the pie to agree to a new deal two seasons out from the end of the current CBA. This person called the first three meetings positive, but baby steps toward a deal. I do know that there have not been any significant discussions on a change in the revenue split yet. Those talks will have to progress for anything to get done.

• The 18-game schedule is nowhere near a reality. I heard that one or two teams are interested in what the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the NFL has proposed discussing with the players as part of the CBA talks: an 18-game regular-season schedule, with each player eligible to play a maximum of 16 games. This is not a new idea—it’s been thrown around at league meetings as one idea to expand the inventory and enrich the league’s TV deals for years.

“I can’t see it,” one plugged-in club official told me. “Imagine you pay to see Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the Patriots announce that week it’s one of the two games he’ll sitting out this year. Now you’re seeing Brian Hoyer throw to some practice-squad guy. I don’t see any way we could ever do that.”

I’ve always thought in an era when the reduction of head trauma is job one in everything the league does, the only way the NFL could even consider 18 games is with teams playing players a maximum of 16 weeks. But the details make it too hard. How would a team divvy up the starts, say, for the starting offensive line? Would they figure the starting tackles should play every week with the starting quarterback, and thus doom the backup in his two games to a run-for-your-life offensive scheme?

The continued pursuit—or the continuing broaching—of an 18-game schedule is such a short-sighted and greedy thing. The NFL paid each team $275 million out of the league share of total revenue in 2018, and teams paid about $215 million annually in player costs (cap plus benefits). After that, teams can reap major raw profits over what they did in local team revenue.

Someone in the NFL seems determined to kill the most golden of geese by pursuing, even in a passing way, this stupid idea. Greed, in this case, is not good.

• Fans don’t want 18 games either. I put out a Twitter poll Saturday and Sunday, asking if readers preferred a 16 or 18-game schedule. Of 13,533 voters, 79 percent said 16. Great comment from a Vikings fan, Jason Altland: “If I pay out the nose for decent tickets in Baltimore or New York to see my Vikings, I want to see all the healthy stars play. I don’t want to pay and end up with a [Stefon] Diggs or {Adam] Thielen bye game.”

Pro Football Talk also polled its readers over the weekend about the 16/18-game idea, with more options than I offered … and 62 percent said they favored 16 games—with 8 percent saying they favored 18 with a maximum of 16 games per player per season.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Why Melvin Gordon’s holdout with the Chargers could get ugly

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I think this Melvin Gordon-Chargers impasse could get ugly. The Chargers running back, entering his fifth season, could hold out from training camp into the season if he doesn’t get either a new contract or a significant raise from his $5.6-million salary in 2019. There’s a few reasons the holdout could last a while, starting with the fact that Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who grew up in the Bill Polian front office of the Colts, is not afraid to take a hard line. But mostly, it’s about what happens in recent years when teams have either paid runners or drawn a hard line with them. Examples:

• Le’Veon Bell balked at the Steelers’ offer of $14.5 million on the franchise tag last year. James Conner wasn’t quite as productive as vintage Bell—270 touches, 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns—but he was close. And Conner, who made $754,572 last year, cost 1/19th of what Bell would have commended. No one in Pittsburgh is bemoaning the loss of Bell, though he’s a great player.

• Todd Gurley is a great back too, and the Rams paid a guaranteed $45 million last year. They’ll say they aren’t regretting what they paid Gurley, but an odd and persistent knee problem last year limited him to 88 carries in the Rams’ last nine games—including a 35-yard rushing performance in the Super Bowl. The Rams picked up C.J. Anderson off the street in December, and in five games, he rushed for 488 yards.

• David Johnson of the Cardinals responded to his new $13-million-a-year deal on the eve of the 2018 season by rushing for 940 yards (3.6 yards per carry).

• Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta for $22 million guaranteed in 2017. He’s missed 16 of the Falcons’ last 32 regular-season games and averaged 58 yards per game in the 16 he’s played.

In 30 games over his two NFL seasons, Charger understudy Austin Ekeler has proven elusive and reliable, averaging 5.3 yards per rush and 10.3 yards per catch, with just two lost fumbles. I don’t think Telesco will be afraid to take the slings and arrows of a holdout. So if you’re drafting your fantasy team very early, I’d give a long look at Ekeler.

Read more from Football Morning in America here