Top 5 Decisions That Changed the NFL

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Quite often, when I stumble across an historical event, I wonder what would be different in the world if that event never happened.

For example: In World War I, Japan was an ally of England, France and the United States. Yet during the Versailles Treaty that ended the war, the Japanese were, in essence, snubbed and failed to gain anything close to the “spoils of war”. Had they been treated as an equal partner in this treaty, would they have still gone on their imperialistic march which led to the involvement of the United States in World War II?

Obviously, it is impossible to re-write actual history. But it is entirely possible to speculate as to what may have happened if certain decisions (or events that occurred because of those decisions) turned out differently. That said, here are my top 5 decisions that changed the face of the NFL as we know it today.

5:  Dutch” Sternaman Named Head Coach of the Decatur Staleys.

In 1919, A.E. Staley, owner of the Decatur Staleys, approached Edward “Dutch” Sternaman to come to work for him and play football on his company team. One year later, Staley then asked Sternaman if he would like to be the Head Coach of the Staleys. However, Sternaman chose instead to return to the University of Illinois to complete his degree and Staley put a different Head Coach in charge.

What if Sternaman had accepted the Head Coaching offer instead of returning to college to finish his degree? Then there would have no need for Staley to then offer the job to George Halas. Eventually, after Sternaman completed his degree, he did return to assist Halas in coaching the new team and would end up owning a part of the franchise for a period of time alongside of Halas.

Then in 1933, during the Great Depression, Sternaman was losing money as a result of bad investments and arranged for George Halas to buy him out as owner of (the now) Chicago Bears. The agreement between Halas and Sternaman included a deadline for Halas to make the final payment or lose everything Halas had invested with Sternaman. According to Halas, he made that final payment with only minutes to spare. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But what if the roles had been reversed? It’s doubtful, based on Sternaman’s financial problems, that he could have bought Halas out. It’s also doubtful that the Bears would have been as successful in the 1920’s without George Halas leading the way.

It is entirely possible that George Halas would have ended up as Head Coach of the Bears anyway. But it is also entirely possible that, if he hadn’t, the Bears would have folded during the Great Depression just like so many other NFL teams.

4: Buffalo Joins the NFL as Part of the AAFC Merger.

As part of the AAFC/NFL merger, the NFL agreed to admit three AAFC teams into the NFL, the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts. The choices of Cleveland and San Francisco were obvious as these two teams were clearly the best teams in the AAFC plus the 49ers offered the NFL a second team on the west coast and a geographic rival to the relocated Los Angeles Rams. The selection of the Baltimore Colts, on the other hand, was a controversial one. A more logical choice for that third team would have been the Buffalo Bills. Not only did they field a much better team, they also generated larger gate receipts than did the AAFC Baltimore Colts.

What if the NFL owners had selected the Buffalo Bills instead of the Baltimore Colts? For starters, the Bills would probably not have folded after one year as the 1950 version of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts did evidenced by the fact that, upon receiving notice that the Colts would be joining the NFL, Bills fans purchased over 15,000 season tickets and raised $175,000 in stock offerings for a team that didn’t even exist!

Next, given the NFL’s propensity to not award a franchise to a city in which they had just previously denied one, it is doubtful that Carroll Rosenbloom’s plan to purchase the assets of the defunct Dallas Texans and relocate it to Baltimore in 1953 would have been approved. The Dallas Texans proved that in the early 1950’s the Dallas market wasn’t ready to support an NFL franchise so if Rosenbloom couldn’t relocate the Texans to Baltimore, he probably would not have purchased the franchise.

With no Carroll Rosenbloom as an owner in Baltimore, there could be no trading of franchises with Robert Irsay who had just purchased the Los Angeles Rams from the estate of Daniel Reeves. This would eventually impact two other current NFL markets. One, with no Robert Irsay in Baltimore, there would have been no moving of the Colts franchise to Indianapolis. Two, if Rosenbloom had not become the owner of the Rams, then his widow, Georgia Frontiere, could not have moved the Rams franchise to St. Louis.

3: Art Rooney Folds the Pittsburgh Steelers.

From their inception in 1933 through the 1940 season the Pittsburgh Steelers amassed a less than spectacular record of 24-62-5. Art Rooney knew that he had neither a nucleus of player talent nor the financial ability to build a winning team. So he did what would be unthinkable today. He sold the Pittsburgh Steelers to Alexis Thompson. Thompson, who was based in New York, didn’t relish the idea of moving to Pittsburgh and agreed to keep the team there for only one year and then planned to move it to Boston.

Rooney then took the proceeds from the sale and purchased half of Bert Bell’s interest in the Philadelphia Eagles. Over the next few months, both teams entered into massive and multiple player trades sending Steelers players to the Eagles and Eagles players to the Steelers. Then, in April of 1941, Rooney and Bell literally traded franchises with Thompson. Thompson ended up as the owner of the Eagles and was much happier being closer to his base in New York and Rooney and Bell were the owners of the Steelers and had brokered some much needed cash for the franchise through the deal.

What if Alexis Thompson hadn’t purchased the Steelers from Dan Rooney? It is entirely possible that Rooney may have found a different buyer but, keep in mind, the country was just emerging from the Great Depression and sports team investors weren’t exactly hanging on the trees. In addition, the world was on the brink of a second World War which would have further discouraged such an investment. It is more than likely that Rooney would have had no choice but to shut down the Steelers.

But wait . . . there’s more to this story.

2: New Steelers’ Owner Relocates Team to Boston.

When he purchased the Pittsburgh Steelers, Alexis Thompson only agreed to leave the team in Pittsburgh for one year as he planned to move the team to Boston. However, in April of 1941, Thompson traded the entire Steelers’ franchise for Art Rooney and Bert Bell’s Philadelphia Eagles. So Art Rooney ends up back in Pittsburgh with a vastly improved roster thanks all of the players trades plus he had a much needed influx of cash because of the deal. Meanwhile, Thompson ends up in Philadelphia with a roster that closely resembled the inept Pittsburgh of prior years.

What if Alexis Thompson decided against trading franchises with Rooney and Bell? For starters (barring future expansion), 1941 would have been the last year of NFL football in Pittsburgh as Thompson would have moved the franchise to Boston just as he had planned.

Next, Thompson would not have been in a position to hire Head Coach “Greasy” Neil in Philadelphia. Neal promptly purged the Eagles roster of ex-Steelers and slowly but surely built the Eagles into a contending team culminating with back to back NFL Championships in 1948 and 1949. Obviously, Rooney and Bell could have gone the same route with the same Head Coach but we will never know.

And next . . . the Granddaddy decision of them all.

1: Lamar Hunt Purchases Chicago Cardinals.

One of the few franchises that didn’t share in the NFL’s newfound success during the 1950’s was the Chicago Cardinals owned by the Bidwill family. They needed cash as they could not compete against the growing popularity of the Chicago Bears and began entertaining offers from would be investors.

One of the would-be investors was Lamar Hunt, the son and heir of a Texas millionaire oilman. Hunt (along with Bud Adams, Bob Howsam and Max Winter) offered to buy the Cardinals outright and move the team to Dallas but their offer was rejected. They then approached NFL Commissioner, Bert Bell, and once again proposed the addition of expansion teams. But Bell was unwilling to risk diluting the success of the NFL and informed Hunt of his decision during a meeting in New York in early 1959.

 

What if the Bidwill family had accepted Lamar Hunt’s offer to buy the Cardinals outright? Then Hunt would have had no need to hatch the plan to form a new professional football league and the AFL would not have been launched. The ramifications of this are enormous starting with;

If Lamar Hunt had moved the Cardinals to Dallas as he planned, there would have no need for the NFL to add the Cowboys franchise in 1960. Further, Hunt would have had no need to move his AFL Dallas Texans to Kansas City. Ergo – no Dallas Cowboys and no Kansas City Chiefs.

The Minnesota Vikings would not have been added as an NFL expansion team. One of the AFL’s charter franchises was to be in Minneapolis. In order to stunt the AFL’s growth, the NFL added the Vikings as an expansion team in 1961.

Without the launch of the AFL in 1960, obviously none of the eight charter teams (L.A. (San Diego) Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, the aforementioned Dallas Texans, Houston Oilers, Buffalo Bills, New York Titans (Jets) and Boston (New England) Patriots would have begun play. Of course someone other than Lamar Hunt could have formed a new league, but without the administrative foresight of Lamar Hunt and the competitive tenacity of Al Davis, it is doubtful that any other new league would have ended in a merger with the NFL.

AFL expansion teams (Miami in 1966, Cincinnati 1968, Seattle in 1977 and Jacksonville in 1995) would never have been awarded franchises. While it is entirely possible that they would have eventually joined the NFL as an expansion team, it is doubtful that they would have entered the league as early as they did.

The player bidding wars that went on during the 1960’s would never have taken place. A list of notable players landed by AFL teams that would have ended up on one of the “Old Line” NFL teams would begin with;

  • Don Maynard – 1960
  • Ron Mix – 1960
  • Lance Alworth – 1962
  • Joe Namath – 1965
  • Fred Biletnikoff – 1965

Two of the most memorable draft day hissy fits would never have taken place. If John Elway wanted to play pro football, he would have had no choice but to sign and play for the Baltimore Colts. Eli Manning could have ended up precisely where he did with the New York Giants but it would have been less the drama of the draft day trade with the Chargers that got him there. The question in the latter is then who would have drafted Philip Rivers?

Last, from a purely selfish Browns fan’s viewpoint, no AFL would have meant, no “Red Right 88”, No “Drive”, No “Fumble”, the Colts would have remained in Baltimore so no Ravens.

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I am a transplanted Connecticut Yankee. My family moved to Northern Ohio in the very early 1950's and plopped me right smack dab in the middle of the Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley era Cleveland Browns and I have been a fan ever since. I'm also an avid history buff so the combination of the NFL and history seems to be a perfect match for me. I hope that I will be successful in sharing some of my research on the history of the NFL and hope you learn something new while reading my articles.
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