Skip to main content
Original Issue


The NFL kicks off its 52nd season to criticism that the game has deteriorated, its talent been diluted. No way, says the author, who scrutinizes a mythical game: '51 Rams vs. '71 Cowboys

Nothing improves a professional football player like age. Up to a point this holds true during his career. It is even truer once he has retired. Bronko Nagurski was a great football player and has become a legend, but it is very doubtful that he could replace the Dallas Cowboys' Calvin Hill if he were playing today. He was not as big—6'2", 230 against 6'4", 235—and not nearly as fast. Red Grange, another legend, played at 5'11" and 175, quite small by modern pro standards, and both he and Nagurski ran against linemen and linebackers who would have to buy tickets to get into a game nowadays.

A number of experts have said the pro game has deteriorated during the past two decades due to the dilution of talent as the league expanded from 12 to 26 teams. But this is far from true. There is more talent today than ever. The players are bigger, faster, more skilled, better coached, in better condition and smarter than they were 20 years ago—and there are more of them.

In 1951 the Los Angeles Rams had the most talent of any pro team and they won the NFL title. One reason for their success was their scouting system, which was 10 years ahead of the competition. Another was that they were the first to draft players from the black colleges, picking Tank Younger of Grambling in 1949. Since then Grambling alone has sent 87 players to the pros.

In 1971 the team with the most talent is the Cowboys. Like the '51 Rams, the Cowboys were put together by Tex Schramm, who was the assistant to Ram President Dan Reeves and is now president of the Cowboys. Schramm's genius lies primarily in his ability to develop a scouting system; although the Cowboys' scouting system has been computerized, it is modeled on the one the Rams used in the late '40s and early '50s. So, if pro football talent has been diluted since 1951 by the addition of 14 teams, the 1971 Cowboys should be demonstrably weaker than the 1951 Rams.

I have seen a good deal of the 1971 Cowboys and I was the publicity director for the 1951 Rams, and if the two teams were to play tomorrow the Cowboys would win by at least four touchdowns.

The only position at which the Rams might have an edge is quarterback, which Bob Waterfield and Norman Van Brocklin shared. By present-day standards, they were a little short; Waterfield is 6'1½", Van Brocklin 6'1". But both had strong, accurate arms and extraordinary football acumen and they would have to be rated above Craig Morton (6'4") and Roger Staubach (6'3"). Whether they could have thrown as effectively against the towering defensive lines that Morton and Staubach face is questionable. The Rams beat the Cleveland Browns for the title in 1951 and the biggest man on the Cleveland defensive line in that game was John Kissell, who at 6'3", 247 was considered a giant. Only one Baltimore lineman in Super Bowl V weighed less than that and the biggest was Bubba Smith, who goes 6'7", 295 and is quicker than Kissell ever was. Of course, if the 1951 Ram offensive line had to protect Waterfield and Van Brocklin from the 1971 Cowboy rush, there is some doubt that either of them would have had time to throw the ball.

The blocking line for the 1951 Rams was; left tackle, Don Simensen, 6'2", 220; left guard, Dick Daugherty, 6'1", 214; center, Leon McLaughlin, 6'2", 228; right guard, Bill Lange, 6'1½", 245; right tackle, Tom Dahms, 6'5", 240. Aside from the fact that all of them were rookies, only two—Lange and Dahms—had anything approaching the size an offensive lineman needs today. The rest not only could not make a pro club in 1971, most of them would automatically be rejected by the computers on the basis of size alone.

Now consider the people the 1951 Rams' line would have had to contain if they had played the 1971 Cowboys. Simensen would have been blocking on George Andrie, who is 6'6", 250 and has nine years pro experience. Simensen did not have a good deal of luck against the smaller, lighter and less experienced defensive ends he blocked in 1951. He would have been destroyed by Andrie. Daugherty would have been giving away 46 pounds, four inches and 10 years of experience to Bob Lilly; it would have taken a major miracle and a baseball bat for him to even slow Lilly down. He would have gotten help from McLaughlin, the center, but that would have left the middle open for Lee Roy Jordan to blitz, which would have been disastrous for Waterfield or Van Brocklin. At 221 pounds, Lee Roy is small by today's standards, but he was about as big as middle linebackers came in 1951. The mismatch at right guard is not quite as obvious, although Lange was 15 pounds lighter than Jethro Pugh and not nearly as fast or experienced. In his six years in the league, Pugh has beaten bigger and more experienced guards consistently, rookie guards always. Probably the nearest thing to a standoff would have been Dahms blocking on Larry Cole, although even here Cole would enjoy a 10-pound advantage and three years more experience.

The Rams' difficulties on offense would have been multiplied on defense, the weakest part of their game. In 1951 the Rams scored 392 points, the most in the NFL, but they gave up 261.

Again, a comparison of the 1971 Cowboy and 1951 Ram opposing lines tells a revealing story. The Ram defensive line: left end, Larry Brink, 6'5", 240; left tackle, Jim Winkler, 6'2", 248; middle guard, Stan West, 6'2", 258; right tackle, Charlie Toogood, 6', 233; right end, Andy Robustelli, 6'1", 220. Only Brink and West were veterans.

Blocking on Brink, who was exceptionally big for his day and who overpowered most tackles facing him, would be Rayfield Wright, who is bigger (6'6", 255) and more experienced. Brink would not have overpowered Wright and did not have the maneuverability to go around him. Blaine Nye, at right guard, might have had trouble with Winkler, although Nye is a bit bigger and considerably more experienced, but the odds are that Nye would have handled him.

The Rams used the Eagle defense in 1951, which included a middle guard playing over the center in a five-man line. West was a typical middle guard, immobile, ineffectual in a pass rush and to either side, which was all he needed to perform his function of plugging up the center against a run. Dave Manders, the Dallas center, would have blocked on West, using five years more experience and much more speed to clear a road up the middle for runners like Wall Garrison and Hill. At right tackle, Toogood would have been 12 pounds lighter and five years less experienced than John Niland, a totally impossible handicap for a defensive tackle to overcome. And Robustelli, who went on to become All-Pro for both the Rams and the New York Giants, certainly could not have beaten Ralph Neely, who would have outweighed him by 45 pounds and has been All-Pro himself four times. Neely has whipped ends of the caliber of Deacon Jones; he would have slammed the door in Robustelli's face.

So, if most football games are won in the line, the Cowboys would certainly have won this one. But the disparity extends beyond the line. The two first-rate receivers for the Rams in 1951 were Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch, and there is no doubt whatever that they would have been first-rate today. But there is some question whether or not they would have been as effective against modern defenses and modern defensive backs. Hirsch ran the 100 in about 9.8; Fears was not that fast. Speed is not the be-all and end-all of good receiving, but it has become a necessity. Bob Hayes has run the 100 in 9.1; there was not a defensive back on the Ram team who had run it under 10 flat. Lance Alworth, the other Cowboy wide receiver, ran a 9.6 100 as a freshman at Arkansas.

The fastest men on the Ram team were Bob Boyd, a little-used end who had a 9.5 100 to his credit, and a halfback named Verda Thomas Smith. He was nicknamed Vitamin, and he ran the 100 in 9.6. But Vitamin was only 5'8", 180. The Rams did have a trio of big, fast backs in Deacon Dan Towler, Dick Hoerner and Younger. They ranged from 220 to 226 pounds and were called the Bull Elephant Backfield. No one has called the Cowboys' backs bull elephants, but Hill is bigger than any member of the Ram trio and can run the 100 in under 10 seconds.

The Rams were regarded as by far the fastest pro team in 1951; as an example of how much faster modern teams are, the Houston Oilers had three men in camp this year who had run the 100 in 9.3. This speed is used, as often as not, in the defensive backfield, where the cornerbacks and safeties must be fast to keep up with the likes of Hayes, Alworth and Paul Warfield. There, again, the 1951 Rams would have been hard put to survive in the modern game. Their defensive backs were fast—for their time. Jerry Williams and Woodley Lewis, the speediest, could not possibly have covered a Hayes or an Alworth on a fly pattern; they would have been losing a yard in 10.

It is unfair to compare linebackers because of the differences in defenses today. In Don Paul, the Rams had a big, tough player who was marvelous against the run, but neither Paul nor the other linebacker had much pass defense responsibility. Paul was very likely not as fast as any one of the three Cowboy linebackers; Jordan and Chuck Howley, especially, are faster than many of the backs who played in the NFL in 1951.

If the difference between the 1971 Cowboys and the 1951 Rams is shocking, the difference between the lesser teams during the two eras is even more so. With inadequate scouting systems, they went to the draft meeting with copies of a college football annual, and by the time they had exhausted the obvious choices, they drafted in the dark. And many were chosen. Each club picked 30 as compared with 17 now, so that the total number of players drafted was 360 against 442.

Another important element that has contributed to the greater ability of pro football players in recent years is money. When Van Brocklin signed his rookie contract with the Rams, he was paid a $500 bonus and an annual salary of $12,500. Pro football was not a particularly inviting career in 1951. Now a bright, competent athlete is far more likely to try to make it in that sport.

But probably the biggest factor that has prevented any dilution in the quality of pro football players—and, as a result, in the quality of the game itself—is the wholehearted acceptance of blacks. Although the Rams were pioneers in signing black players, there were only five on the 1951 team—Boyd, Lewis, Harry Thompson, Towler and Younger. The Dallas team that lost to Baltimore in Super Bowl V had 14, the Colts 13.

As good as the 1951 Rams were—and I remember them with enormous affection—it is most unlikely that they could have won even a division championship in either the NFC or the AFC in 1971. They are a great memory, but only a memory.




















San Francisco

The opinions expressed above are solely those of Mr. Maule and do not necessarily coincide with the consensus of the pro football staff (e.g., see page 38).