Another Pro Football League?

Barry ShuckContributor IIIJune 1, 2011

With the ongoing crisis of the NFL lockout, it's starting to look possible that the situation might not conclude this year. In all likelihood, the upcoming season will abide by the same conditions and rules which the league and players adhered to in the 2010 football season. Essentially, billionaire owners and millionaire players are starting to realize the odds of getting paid go up only if games are actually played.

Then, after the season, the whole bargaining mess will start over with new points of interest, demands, posturing and finger-wagging.

Because of the impending lockout, there have been rumblings that there should be another pro football league founded. In the fan’s perspective, what better way is there to get the attention of NFL owners and players than for new teams to sprout up that would threaten their fan's loyalty and merchandise sales? After all, it's the fans who choose their favorite teams, not the other way around.

But seriously, another league on the pro football landscape?

Of course, there are currently several other professional football leagues already in existence. Although the Arena Football League (AFL) and the United Football League (UFL) are considered by most folks as developmental associations and located in secondary cities such as Hartford, Orlando, Las Vegas and Spokane, each is still a viable, functional league that pays its players and offers continuing opportunities for athletes to play professional football.

“Arena Football was built on Ironman football in which most players have to play two ways, so the skills needed to be successful in the AFL are not the same as those needed to excel in the NFL,” said Stephen Evans, Chief Operations Officer of the AFL's Dallas Vigilantes. “Thus, it didn’t make sense for the AFL to try to be a farm league of the NFL.”

In addition to the AFL and the UFL, there is also the Canadian Football League, eight indoor leagues and four women’s leagues including the 60-member Women’s Football Alliance and the Lingerie Football League.

In fact, there are three pro football leagues that have been in the planning stages for several years now; each with definitive plans to compete in 2012 or 2013: the New United States Football League, the Ultimate Football League, and the Southern United Football League. The All American Football League had been in the planning stages since 2007, but just recently dissolved. The AAFL had already signed head coaches, designated cities and even inked four national sponsorships.

During the NFL’s 90-year history, there have been 26 other pro football leagues that have competed for the sport’s attention. In order for a new sports league to be completely successful, two things are needed: (a) excessive amounts of money, and (b) there is no B.

There was one pro football league long ago that not only had the NFL’s attention, but had the potential to lead to its downfall.


New Ownership Interests

The year was 1942. The National Football League was comprised of a paltry 10 teams. The moniker “National” was more aspiration than reality, as the westernmost team was Chicago and the southernmost club resided in Washington. With the exception of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the league was finally devoid of the small-market clubs that had plagued its existence, and the other teams were all based in larger cities. The NFL was fairly successful, and was growing the sport of professional football in the United States.  

At the time, there were several wealthy men who wanted to own their own pro football franchises. Each approached the NFL owners, but were told the league was quite content with its current size. The fact was, the NFL owners group were a tight-knit bunch and didn't want any outsiders bringing in new-fangled ideas and problems.

However, their closed door policy was certain to trigger trouble sooner or later.

One such outsider was Don Ameche, who was an important radio star and a leading man on Broadway. He was quite wealthy, and was an avid sports fan. Ameche fancied football most of all and wanted to own a team. He approached the NFL in 1942 about an expansion team in his hometown of Los Angeles.

The NFL owners told Ameche a team on the west coast would be a financial fiasco because of the travel, which back then was done by train. Ameche then offered to field a team in Buffalo until the war ended and then relocate the club to Los Angeles. The owner’s argument was that the time wasn’t right for expansion.

The Chicago Cardinals were always the one team that these outsiders targeted, as the current owner, Charles Bidwell, had made it known that the team was up for sale. The prospective new owners all intended to purchase the club, then move it to whichever city the owner called home. Other prospective owners, like Ameche, became frustrated when Bidwell would constantly waffle on whether the team was actually for sale.

World War II changed everything. The war broke out and many pro football and college players left the game to enter the war effort.

The NFL in the mid-1940s barely survived the war. The Cleveland Rams suspended operations and closed up shop in 1943. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles could not field teams on their own, so they combined rosters and were known as the “Steagles.” Chicago Bears head coach George Halas held public tryouts, and signed anyone who could run around the field twice. Talent was scarce.

In 1944, the Steelers were again unable to field a team and merged with the Chicago Cardinals. To make matters worse, the competitive nature of the league dwindled as four of the 10 clubs went on to win a combined total of six games. However, as the 1945 season went on, the war effort was winding down, and things finally settled back down for the NFL.

So they thought.

The wealthy prospective owners who wanted their own teams were still around after the war, and in fact the number multiplied. They came knocking once again, and once more, they were told expansion would be years—if not decades—away, and that the ownership group was satisfied with the status quo and no teams were currently for sale.

With the conclusion of World War II in 1945, America was booming. Thousands of war veterans were returning home, and opportunity was in the air. Hundreds of former NFL players wanted to return to pro football. College players who missed their graduating classes were geared up to compete in the pro game. There was literally a stockpile of able-bodied players. Plus, air travel was now a viable method of transportation.   

Enter a man by the name of Arch Ward.

Ward already had a place in the pro football universe. He was the sports editor at the Chicago Tribune and was considered the nation’s leading newspaper sports editor. He founded the Major League All-Star game and the annual College All-Star game, which pitted a roster of college stars against last year’s NFL champion. Obviously, NFL owners knew who Ward was and respected him.

Ward was also good friends with Ameche, and after the NFL snubbed Ameche, suddenly he had a new mission. 


A New Pro Football League

The NFL owners expressed their desire for the league to remain in the east and Midwest. Clubs weren’t making any real money back then, and with the added travel and lodging expenses, sticking to one region would shorten their bottom line. Plus, the war had not only decimated their rosters, but attendance during the war years had been at an all-time low, in an era when ticket sales were responsible for over 80 percent of their revenue.

The NFL's unwillingness to consider expansion angered Ward. In June of 1944, he brought together several rich men who had expressed interest in owning an NFL team and floated the idea of a second professional football league. Ward envisioned a “World Series of Football” with a championship game against the NFL champion similar to baseball’s World Series.

Additionally, Ward envisioned a true “national” pro football league with teams located in the southwest, southeast and along the Pacific coast.

The initial plan was to have eight to ten teams in the first season, with expansion in the third year. Right away clubs were placed in Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland and New York (Brooklyn). This meant immediate competition in three of those cities, as the NFL already had the Bears and Cardinals in Chicago, the Rams in Cleveland, and the Giants and Brooklyn Tigers in New York.

A month later, Ward announced with spectacular headlines the formation of the “All-America Football Conference” (AAFC) which would begin play in 1945. Ward noted that baseball’s American League was formed 24 years after the National League, and that the established NFL had just completed its 24th season.

Other teams were soon announced in Buffalo and San Francisco. Baltimore and Seattle were given an opportunity to gain admission, but both would later pass due to stadium issues.

Later, it was announced that the new league would not begin until the 1946 season because the war did not officially cease until 1945.

Then oddly enough, news came that Dan Topping, one of the NFL’s wealthiest owners and owner of the Brooklyn Tigers football team and the New York Yankees baseball team, had removed his NFL franchise and placed it into the AAFC. Topping had wanted his NFL team to play in Yankee Stadium, but the Giants had territorial rights and refused to share. To end the dispute, Topping simply jumped leagues, renamed his club the New York Yankees and signed a lease to play home games at the house that Ruth built.

The eighth and final club was located in Miami. This franchise would become the first major league sports team based in the city.  

James Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s fabled Four Horsemen, was announced as the new league’s commissioner. Instead of a player draft, it was up to each team to find athletes to fill their rosters. But the most important announcement for the infant association would come later that winter.

Call Him Paul

In February of 1945, the Cleveland entry of the newly-formed AAFC announced that they had signed Paul Brown as their head coach.

Brown had built Ohio State into a powerhouse and had won a national championship there. During the war, Brown’s enlistment as an officer included coaching the Great Lakes Naval Academy football team, which defeated several national college powers. Before the Ohio State gig, he coached Massillon (Ohio) High School to a career 80-8-2 record.

Ohio State had wanted Brown back after the war, but he saw coaching Cleveland as a way to begin from the ground up with players who were totally devoted to football, without class studies getting in the way. At the time, Brown was the most famous individual in the state of Ohio.

Because the league did not hold a player draft, Brown began recruiting key athletes during the war. He sent out contracts to players he had previously coached or coached against, along with monthly $250 stipends until the war ceased. Brown gave players signing bonuses of $2,500, and contracts that exceeded those given in the NFL. Players such as Lou “The Toe” Groza, Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli and Lin Houston all signed this way.

Coach Brown then signed Bill Willis, a quick, undersized defensive end who had played for Brown at Ohio State. Willis happened to be black. Pro football in those days did not have any black players. There was no written rule against black players, and although black players played in the earlier years of the league, the NFL hadn't had any on any roster since 1933. Back then, white players did not room with black players, so Brown inked a fullback by the name of Marion Motley to bunk with Willis.

Both of these players signed a full year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Both Willis and Motley would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In The Sporting News' list of 100 Greatest Football Players of all time, Motley was ranked number 32.

Brown was an unconventional coach. Whereas most clubs had two assistant coaches, Brown hired six. When the season ended, most coaches held second jobs. With Brown, all coaches worked year round. One coach, Red Conkright, would serve as an advance scout and would travel to Cleveland’s next opponent’s game in order to help devise a game plan, a system that was unheard of at the time.

Brown had so many excellent players on his squad that the number exceeded the maximum number the league allowed on a roster. Instead of waiving them so they could play for another AAFC team or jump to the NFL, Brown had an innovative idea.

Cleveland’s owner was Mickey McBride, who also owned the local Zone/Yellow Cab Company. The extra players were hired by Yellow Cab with schedules which would worked around practices. Every afternoon, scores of cabs would appear at the Browns practice field, and out popped drivers/players who were ready to practice. Thus, the term “taxi squad” was born. Today, these extra players are referred to as the “practice squad.” 

The First Season

As the AAFC was preparing for its initial season, two owners were assigned the honor of contacting the NFL to arrange a meeting. The agenda would be honorary of sorts to lay out a gentleman’s agreement on a dual-league college draft, anti-raiding guidelines, inter-league schedules and player salary restrictions.

The NFL commissioner was Elmer Layden. When Ward called Layden about a quote regarding the impeding meeting, the commissioner acted like he wasn’t even aware of the new league. In the Chicago Tribune, he was quoted as saying that the AAFC should “first get a ball, then make a schedule, and then play a game.”

The AAFC felt insulted, and the barb “first get a ball” would be famously remembered.

The league did indeed get a football, and was set for its inaugural season. All eight teams had rosters, stadium leases and nicknames: the New York Yankees, Buffalo Bison, Brooklyn Dodgers and Miami Seahawks made up the Eastern Division, while the Western Division was comprised of the Chicago Rockets, Los Angeles Dons, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers.

The AAFC owners were much wealthier and better financed than the owners in the NFL, which meant each was prepared to take some financial losses in the beginning.

Before the AAFC’s first season, the Cleveland Rams moved out west to Los Angeles, leaving the the Browns as the city's only football team.

Coach Brown would soon become known as one of the game’s great innovators.

The league made several advances that have left their mark on pro football today. The schedule was devised so that every team played each other once, and each team in the division played a home-and-away game against each team in its division. This enabled fans of all teams to see star players perform live in their own city. Also, the AAFC had a rule that enabled each free substitution during games, which eliminated two-way players.

The opening game pitted the Browns against Miami at Cleveland Stadium on September 5. The contest drew 60,135, at the time a record for a pro football contest. A 120-piece marching band performed along with 30 Rockettes-style majorettes. A new car was given away, and midget Tommy Flynn was dressed in a Brownie mascot uniform while a duo of French chefs took care of beat writers in the press box.

The game ended as a 44-0 whipping in favor of the Browns. Cleveland utilized the pass like no other pro football team in history. Their offense often threw the ball in any situation, and the passing attack was more intricate and complex than any other teams to date. Add Motley's bruising running game, a stone-cold defense featuring Willis’ signature swim move, plus a surefire kicker in Groza, and the Browns were a formidable force. 

The Browns would finish the season 12-2-0, while San Francisco trailed them with a 9-5-0 record. Over in the Eastern Division, the Yankees ended 10-3-1. Cleveland went on to capture the inaugural championship game with a 14-9 victory over the Yanks.    

Even though the AAFC had a successful first year, every team lost money except the Browns. Over in the NFL, the champion Bears were the only club to turn a profit. Escalating player salaries were considered to be the key reason for the financial losses.

The NFL was not impressed with the new league. Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall commented that “the worst team in our league could beat the best team in theirs.”

Browns Dominate

In the AAFC seasons ahead, Cleveland would outmatch their opponents, week after week. They were far superior in every aspect of the game.

After the Browns lost to Los Angeles 13-10 in the sixth game of the 1947 season, they went on to win 28 straight games (with one tie) over two-and-a-half seasons. That streak came to a halt when they lost 56-28 to their division nemesis, the 49ers, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

“We were flying high as a kite after that game,” said two-time Pro Bowler Jim Cason, who played safety for the 49ers from 1947-1954. “We just couldn’t ever beat Cleveland. They had the best quarterback in the league and the best coach. But on that one day, everything we did was right.”

The Browns won both the 1947 and 1948 titles with victories over the Yankees (14-7) and Buffalo (49-7). The squad went 12-1-1 in 1947 and became one of pro football’s few undefeated/untied teams in 1948 after finishing a sterling season with a 14-0-0 record.

Meanwhile, the Bisons changed their nickname to the Bills, and Miami relocated to Baltimore where their team was rechristened as the Colts.

The AAFC had many advantages that previous upstart pro football leagues hadn't enjoyed. For one, Ward’s influence with newspaper sports sections made it easy for the league to get publicity. In addition, the owners were all extremely wealthy, and could withstand losses. There was also an excess of player talent because of the number of men returning from the war. Coach Brown became known as the best coach in football, which brought attention to the league as a whole. Teams could now travel by air, removing the drudgery of rail travel.

Buffalo, San Francisco and Los Angeles had good support at the gate. Initially, the Dons outdrew the Rams in attendance largely in part of a better win-loss record and star quarterback Glenn Dobbs, who was crowned the league’s MVP in 1946. The Rams lost $161,000 their first season.

However, as time went on, interest in the league dwindled, the main reason being the continued dominance of the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns appeared on the cover of Life, Newsweek and Time. While this was great publicity for the AAFC as a whole, it also showed just how dominant Cleveland had been in the standings.

Their dominance would eventually lead to the breakdown of the league.

The press began writing articles about how the Browns were destroying the AAFC. Fans became disinterested, feeling that they knew before the games were even played that Cleveland would win.

Even in their home city, fans began to stay home. While the Browns averaged over 48,000 per game in 1946 and 56,000 in 1947, the numbers dropped during the undefeated season to 45,000 per game and just over 31,000 in the final season of 1949.

What was intriguing was the fact that a team’s success was actually hurting not only themselves, but the league as a whole.

Something had to change.

NFL Merger

In 1948, the Chicago Rockets were having a difficult time. As the third team in the city along with the Cardinals and the Bears, they had trouble drawing fans and turning a profit. The following season, the team changed owners for the fourth time and renamed themselves the Hornets. The Yankees and the Dodgers were still sharing fans with the NFL Giants in New York. Baltimore was not drawing good crowds. Player salaries were larger than ever. Profit margins were at an all-time low. And the Browns went undefeated.

“We always felt that our league was inferior to the NFL, even though we had our fair share of star players,” Cason explained.

After the season, a committee was formed to look at a proposed merger with the NFL. The established league had a new commissioner in Bert Bell, the former owner of the Eagles and Steelers. Ben Lindheimer, co-owner of the Dons, became the voice of the AAFC and set up a meeting with Bell. The NFL listened and offered to take in the Browns and the 49ers, which would give the Rams a natural rival. The AAFC declined.

A year later, the two leagues held a negotiation session at the Racquet Club in Philadelphia. Two days before the 49ers and the Browns were to play in the 1949 AAFC Championship game in December, the merger was announced. Three teams would be melded into the NFL: the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts.

The rest of the AAFC players would be placed into a draft pool and dispersed among NFL teams. At first, it was announced that the league would be renamed the National-American Football League. Later in March, Bell stated that the league would remain the National Football League; although the divisions would be renamed National and American (instead of Eastern and Western).

The inclusion of Baltimore into the NFL was somewhat curious. Buffalo had an excellent following, better attendance and their team was far superior to the Colts. Suddenly, their team was relegated to the junk pile, which angered the team’s fans. Bills’ fans petitioned the NFL for inclusion into the league, then generated over 15,000 season ticket pledges and raised $175,000. Later, it was divulged that the Colts had paid the Redskins of the NFL a $150,000 territorial fee, and that Bills’ owner Jim Breuil had accepted a one-fourth ownership package with the Browns.

“The All-America Conference provided a lot of opportunities for so many players,” offered Cason. “It was a great thing that got started. With someone like me, I was able to play and then move into the NFL with the merger.”

The NFL had conquered a decade of turmoil with World War II and the existence of the AAFC, but was suddenly faced with another challenge.

The Browns Continue Their Quest

For the 1950 season, the NFL was ready to finally settle down. The war with the AAFC was finally over, and profitability was on every owner’s mind.

The Eagles had won back-to-back NFL titles in 1948-1949. The Rams were the offensive juggernauts of the league while the Bears, Giants and Cardinals were always in the championship hunt.

The NFL now had 13 clubs. The Browns were placed in the American Conference (formerly Eastern Division) while the 49ers were sent to the National Conference (formerly Western Division). The Colts were designated as a “swing team”; which meant they would play each team only once. Baltimore lost all six pre-season games and their first seven en route to a 1-11-1 record. The 49ers lost their first five games and finished 3-9-0.

The Browns, however, found themselves in the same position in another league. 

The opening weekend of the 1950 NFL season consisted of five games, all to be played on Sunday, September 17. The season opener was to take place the night before. The schedule pitted the Browns against the Eagles at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium.

It was a matchup between the four-time AAFC Champion and the two-time reigning NFL Champion. The press called it “The World Series of Pro Football.”

The Eagles boasted one of football’s most proficient defenses. Steve Van Buren was their star running back, and their pass defense was made of granite and stone. Their head coach, Greasy Neale, was voted Coach of the Year the previous season.

With an overflow crowd of 71,237, the hometown Eagles took an early 3-0 lead, but the Browns took a 14-3 advantage into the half behind a 59-yard TD pass and huge gains by Motley. In the second half, after the Browns stopped the Eagles on four downs inside the five yard line, the floodgates opened for Cleveland. Constant crisp, short passes from Graham secured a resounding 35-10 victory for the Browns.

Arch Ward finally had his World Series of Football. The AAFC Champion had defeated the NFL Champion.  

The Browns would end the season tied with the Giants for the league’s best record at 10-2-0, and they claimed first place in the American Conference. A conference playoff game was arranged against New York to which the Browns eked out an 8-3 victory. Their reward was a spot in the NFL Championship. Their opponent was the high-scoring 9-3-0 Los Angeles Rams, who had scored 466 points (38.8 average per game) and racked up 64 TDs (5.3 average per game).   

The two offenses completely overwhelmed the two proven defenses. Los Angeles led 14-13 at the half after a bad snap from on a Browns’ extra point attempt.

In the second half, Graham threw his fourth TD pass of the day to bring the Browns to within one point at 28-27. The missed extra point loomed large. Cleveland held and regained possession after forcing a punt with just over five minutes to play. After Graham drove his squad to the Rams 22, a linebacker blitz forced a fumble and the Browns lost possession.

With 1:50 remaining and no timeouts left, the Browns got the ball back on their own 34 yard line. One huge scramble by Graham and three completed passes later, Groza lined up for a 16-yard field goal with :16 left on the clock. The kick was perfect, and the Cleveland Browns had won the championship of the National Football League 30-28—the team's fifth championship in a row.

After the game, NFL commissioner Bell found Coach Brown in the Browns’ jubilant dressing room, embraced him, and said, “You are the greatest team to ever play football.”

The All-America Football Conference had conclusively gained acceptance.  


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