Analysis  

 

Mike Ditka's rampage, Bart Starr's sneak among top plays of '60s

Have you ever seen anyone run more prettily than Gale Sayers? Me neither. That's why, when tasked with selecting the best plays of the 1960s, I had to include the Kansas Comet on my list.

Yes, as part of NFL Media's "'60s Week," I was presented with this assignment. Call these "The Top Five Plays of the Decade" or "The Most Memorable Moments of the 1960s." Either way, they're spectacular, crazy and significant.

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It's very difficult to pick five single plays to represent 10 years of pro football (and additionally difficult to rank 'em in ascending order.) But I'm happy with the fruits of my labor. I'm sure you have some thoughts of your own. (Hit me up @HarrisonNFL to share).

Now, we start with a man more known for coaching one of the greatest teams of all time than catching the football, but one who would live up to his famous nickname on a ferocious catch-and-run 51 years ago ...

5) Iron Mike hammers the Steelers

It was November 24, 1963. No one wanted to play football. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just two days prior, on a Friday afternoon. Lee Harvey Oswald was fatally shot less than an hour before the early games kicked off that day. Needless to say, it was a trying weekend for America, and Commissioner Pete Rozelle's ultimate decision to play out the NFL's Sunday slate would be widely criticized for years to come.

One of the players who reluctantly suited up was Chicago tight end Mike Ditka. The Bears were in Pittsburgh to face the Steelers -- with Chicago trying to stay ahead of the Packers in the NFL West Division -- and Ditka was there to play for his team and his President. A future Hall of Famer, Ditka performed like one on that day, catching seven balls for 146 yards and delivering a play for the ages.

With the Bears trailing 17-14 late, Ditka caught a Billy Wade pass near the left sideline and immediately slipped a tackle. He then proceeded to run out of another tackle attempt before bulldozing into three defenders. As Ditka attempted to wiggle free from the melee, Steelers safety Glenn Glass had a hold of the tight end's arm. Ditka kept rumbling forward, eventually shed Glass and then sprinted 40 yards down the field before running out of gas and getting tracked down. At the conclusion of the play -- which led to a field goal that allowed Chicago to salvage a tie, and eventually hold off Green Bay in the divisional race -- No. 89 ended up sprawled out on the field, flat on his back, as if to say, "I got nothing left."

"That game to me was maybe ... that was my way of committing myself to what I thought of President Kennedy," Ditka would explain years later to NFL Films.

Enough said.

4) Wrong Way, Jim

Roy "Wrong Way" Riegels became a household name in college football -- but not in a good way. The former Cal center lived to be nearly 85 years old, but he never lived down running the wrong way after recovering a Georgia Tech fumble in the 1929 Rose Bowl.

Jim Marshall played the right way during his two decades of NFL service. From 1961 to 1979, the defensive end started 270 straight games for the Minnesota Vikings, a long-standing league record before Brett Favre blew past it a few seasons ago. Yet, for years, Marshall was more known for his close association with "Wrong Way" Riegels than his iron man streak.

Our No. 4 play of the 1960s came on October 25, 1964, in the San Francisco 49ers' home of Kezar Stadium. With Minnesota holding a 27-17 lead in the fourth quarter, the Niners desperately needed to make some hay. Marshall did it for them.

San Francisco quarterback George Mira dropped back to pass, scrambled out of the pocket and eventually completed a short pass to Billy Kilmer, who proceeded to fumble while trying to grind out some extra yards. The venerable Marshall, who was trailing the play, scooped up the ball and took it 66 yards to the house ...

... uh, except it was the wrong house. After bounding into the (wrong) end zone, Marshall tossed the ball into the air and out of bounds -- which, of course, resulted in a safety for the 49ers.

Say what? Yes, it happened. Thankfully for Marshall, the Vikings held on to win, 27-22. This play makes our list, though, because, quite frankly, Marshall's gaffe will live forever.

3) The Kansas Comet streaks by

In the 1950s and '60s, most big-time running backs were not home run hitters. Jim Brown was phenomenal, but wasn't really known as the game's premier breakaway threat. Ditto Jim Taylor and Joe Perry.

Gale Sayers, a.k.a. the "Kansas Comet," broke that mold -- and then some. Sayers piled up 22 touchdowns as a rookie in 1965 (14 rushing, six receiving and two on returns). He was legitimately a threat to score any time he touched the ball. No single game showcased his breathtaking skill set better than the penultimate contest of his rookie campaign, when Sayers spearheaded a 61-20 shellacking of the 49ers, with one particular play serving as an unbelievable exclamation point.

Sayers already had scored five -- FIVE -- touchdowns when the Niners punted to him in the fourth quarter. Sayers fielded the kick at the 15-yard line, broke a tackle while running to his right, then made a sharp cut upfield. With three guys converging on him at the 40, Sayers performed the sweetest backward jump-cut you'll ever see. The San Francisco defenders hit nothing but mud (and each other) while No. 40 galloped into the open field along the left sideline. By the time Sayers was at the 49ers' 28, he was downshifting like Stallone in his "Rocky IV" Lambo.

Sayers' electric playing style was a harbinger of the Tony Dorsetts and Marshall Faulks to come.

2) Namath's heave

As everyone knows, the Jets' defeat of the Colts in Super Bowl III is considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Yet, Joe Namath would not have been in position to make his famous guarantee without a deep shot in the 1968 AFL Championship game against the Oakland Raiders.

Throwing the football, Namath was more of a "flicker;" like Dan Marino and Tony Romo, the Jets icon rarely reared back in his delivery. Frankly, Namath could out-throw either of those guys -- or anyone else -- with less effort. In the '68 AFL title bout, however, the weather and situation would call for the strong-armed kid from Pennsylvania to add a little extra mustard.

Trailing the Raiders 23-20 late in the fourth quarter, the Jets needed to at least get in field-goal range. Wideout Don Maynard told Namath he could get deep. He did. Real deep.

Namath dropped back on the fateful play, planted on his own 32, wound up and launched a ball that hit Maynard in stride on the far side of the field -- at the Raiders' 16. It was an absolutely perfect beauty that knifed through winds gusting at nearly 20 mph. The Jets went on to score on another Namath-to-Maynard connection, punching their ticket to Super Bowl III (and, eventually, into NFL lore).

Long-time New York sportswriter Dave Anderson said he and his peers covering the game figured the ball actually traveled 75 to 80 yards, given where Namath released it and where it ended up across the field. Yep, that's enough to make the list.

1) Starr's sneak

We'll call it "Starr's sneak," but perhaps it should be dubbed "Starr's secret audible." Bart Starr, of course, is the hero of said moment; the Hall of Fame quarterback's improvisation at the end of the coldest game in NFL history created the No. 1 play on this list.

The 1967 NFL Championship Game (or the "Ice Bowl," as it came to be known) was played at around minus-15 degrees. With wind chill, we're talkin' minus-48 at kickoff -- and people in attendance said it got much cooler as the game progressed. (Read that line again.) So, it was under these conditions, and on a skating rink of a pitch, that Green Bay had to mount a drive in the game's final five minutes, with a spot in Super Bowl II on the line.

Trailing the Cowboys 17-14, the Packers marched all the way down the field, getting inside the Dallas 2. Twice the Packers tried to run Donny Anderson, but the back couldn't get any traction on the truly frozen tundra, advancing to just the 1-yard line. So, on third-and-goal, Starr called a timeout to talk things over with head coach Vince Lombardi. Starr thought if he kept the ball himself, he could fall forward behind Jerry Kramer for the score. Lombardi's response? "Run it, and let's get the hell out of here!"

Starr called "Brown Right 31 Wedge" -- a handoff to Chuck Mercein -- in the huddle, without telling Mercein he was keeping the ball himself. The rest is history. Cowboys defensive tackle Jethro Pugh could not get the footing to withstand Kramer's now-famous block, and Starr lunged across the goal line -- an iconic clip that's received steady air time ever since.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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