And now, for something completely different, let’s ask What If? Through the power of this piece, I will transport you to a world that looks, feels, and tastes very much like our Earth, but is not. It is an Earth in a different section of the multiverse where we can study how small, unnoticed changes at the time have a significant ripple effect throughout history.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Unlike, say, the Nazis winning World War II, I will look at something really important; what if the Pittsburgh Steelers had not released Johnny Unitas?
First, a brief background for those of you not familiar with how Unitas became a Baltimore Colt. The Steelers had drafted him in the 9th round of the 1955 draft (102nd player chosen) after a solid but not spectacular career at the University of Louisville. Unitas was slim and awkward and didn’t look much like an NFL quarterback as a 22-year-old. Pittsburgh decided to keep their two veteran QBs and their 11th round pick, QB Vic Eaton, because he could also punt, an important factor in those days of much smaller rosters. This left no room for Unitas, who played semi-pro ball in 1955 before signing with the Colts in 1956.
What if…the Steelers had found someone else to punt and kept Unitas as their third QB in 1955?
By 1957, both of those veteran QB’s were gone, and Unitas had a shot at the starting job, competing with none other than Earl Morrall, who Pittsburgh acquired from the 49ers to provide depth along with their #1 draft choice, Len Dawson. But it was Unitas who took charge of the offense, pleasing new Steeler coach Buddy Parker, who saw some of Bobby Layne in him. Parker had walked away from the Detroit Lions that summer after winning two championships as their coach with Layne as his QB. He knew the importance of a confident field general at QB. Although Unitas was a quiet man, unlike Layne, he demonstrated the leadership skills and was a more disciplined QB than Layne.
Unitas would become a successful QB, but without hall of famers Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore to throw to, and lacking hall of fame talent on the offensive and defensive lines, the Steelers became contenders, but were not nearly good enough to become champions. Unitas would play until retiring following the 1969 season, bruised and battered from the punishment he absorbed behind less-than-stellar blocking, and frustrated by the Steelers never making the playoffs.
With Unitas trying to carry the team on his stooped shoulders, they were never bad enough to receive the highest draft choices, and as result Pittsburgh missed out on Terry Bradshaw in 1970 and other players that could have taken the franchise to the next level.
The Baltimore Colts had drafted QB George Shaw and Heisman Trophy winner FB Alan Ameche with the #1 and #3 picks in the 1955 draft. Shaw was expected to be the QB who would lift the Colts into contender status, but he could not stay healthy. Desperate for someone who could stay on the field, Baltimore traded Ameche to Pittsburgh for Earl Morrall and a #1 pick in 1958.
Baltimore put together a formidable defense in 1958, but like the Steelers, they were not quite able to get over the hump and win their division. While Morrall was a solid QB, he never developed into the type of player the team and coaches felt they could count on when the chips were down.
The Chicago Bears claimed both the 1958 and 1959 Western Division championships and took on the New York Giants for the NFL Championship. The Bears did not have the playmakers on offense to match up with the Giants, so New York won both championship games handily. With titles in 1956, 58, and 59, the Giants were now being referred to in similar terms as their cohabitants in Yankees Stadium, the New York Yankees.
The Giants coach, Jim Lee Howell, was nearing retirement. The possibility of succeeding him and leading that dynasty enticed offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi to reject overtures from the sorry Green Bay Packer franchise and also convinced defensive coordinator Tom Landry to say no to the new Dallas expansion team.
Howell, figuring he had no where to go but down, retired after the 1959 season. The Giants went with the New York born Lombardi as their new coach. A disappointed Landry quickly accepted an offer from the Baltimore Colts, who had just let Weeb Ewbank go-he would wind up as coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Landry would continue the Colts’ defensive dominance (they would eventually earn the nickname the “Doomsday Defense”) and they would come to dominate the Western Division, slugging it out with the Bears and their defensive genius George Allen for the top spot.
Lombardi’s Giants would develop into the greatest dynasty in NFL history. After a hiccup in 1960, New York would win the next three titles, beating Landry’s Colts twice and Allen’s Bears once. An aging roster came up short in 1964, but Lombardi had been expertly retooling the team with younger players who were ready to win again from 1965-67, the last two times beating the Colts again. That last heartbreaking loss in Memorial Stadium was all that Baltimore owner Carrol Rosenblum could take. The follow day he fired Tom Landry and promoted his defensive coordinator, Don Shula to the head job.
The Giants would begin to slip in 1968, missing the playoffs that year and the next. When Lombardi passed away in 1970, New York was left without a succession plan or a particularly strong roster. Like the Yankees a few years earlier, they quickly became irrelevant. That void was quickly filled by the Colts, who won back-to-back titles. They defeated Ewbank’s Cowboys and their dynamic QB Joe Namath, who had mouthed off about guaranteeing victory in the 1968 game but was repeatedly pounded in the dirt of the Cotton Bowl by a fired-up Baltimore defense. Not much was heard from Namath after that.
The NFL did not receive a major jolt from the Giants’ dominance. There was never that one thrilling game that captured the imagination and eyeballs of the nation. Without “The Greatest Game Ever Played” in 1958, the league muddled along. Fans grew weary of New York dominance in baseball, they did not want to turn to football and find more of the same.
There was talk of a rival league being developed in 1959, but there was not enough interest from the three television networks to give them the financial resources to compete. Without that, Texas businessman Lamar Hunt dropped the idea. Cleveland Browns’ owner Art Modell later floated an idea about a weekly Monday night game, but it was quickly dismissed given the mediocre ratings the Sunday games were drawing.
So, on that Earth anyway, the NFL entered the 1970’s a smaller league with a smaller fanbase and an uncertain future.
All because one team kept their 9th round draft choice 15 years earlier. The importance of Johnny Unitas’ career with the Baltimore Colts can not be overstated.
Football never ceases to fascinate me.
Fascinating Factoid of the Week:
In our continuity, the two veteran QB’s that made the 1955 Steelers’ roster ahead of Unitas did not have great playing careers but were very successful in their later roles in the game. The starting QB was Jim Finks, who enjoyed success as a general manager in Calgary of the CFL, then the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, and New Orleans Saints. He almost became commissioner when Pete Rozelle retired, but a group of newer owners wanted to move away from old-school leadership.
Finks’ backup in 1955 has a very familiar name-Ted Marchibroda. He was Pittsburgh’s first round pick in 1953, but an arm injury cut his career short. He jumped into coaching in 1961 with Washington and stayed in that line of work until joining the Indianapolis Colts’ radio broadcast team in 1999.
The Ravens have a game coming up with the Minnesota Vikings, which of course stirs up memories of the crazy ending to their game in the snow at M&T Bank stadium in 2013. I’ll look back at that next week.
Until then, you can follow me on twitter @jimjfootball and remember, its okay to look back as long as you live forward!
Jim Johnson is a passionate sports fan and a proud University of Maryland alum. Prior to joining BSL, Jim wrote about Terps and ACC hoops and football across the Internet, adopting the moniker “The Courtmaster” and becoming a frequent “expert” guest on Bob Haynie’s old WNST show and other sports radio stations across the country. With BSL, Jim previously covered Maryland and the Big Ten. Back with BSL for a second run, Jim will be providing some historical look back articles, with a particular focus on the Ravens / Steelers rivalry.