Happy Birthday, Weeb, we hardly knew ya
Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 05, 2007
Weeb Ewbank's legacy is unmatched.
His name is unknown.
Cold, Hard Football Facts publisher
You would think a coach who captured three NFL championships, won the two most famous games in NFL history, and tutored two of the most legendary quarterbacks of all time would be better known – especially one with such a distinctive name and pigskin pedigree.
Interestingly, though, Weeb Ewbank remains more of a historical football footnote than a gridiron legend.
So here on May 6 – what would have been Ewbank's 100th birthday (he died in 1998) – we pay a little tribute to one of the more interesting but less appreciated personalities in NFL history.
Ewbank is, of course, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So history has paid its due to the coach. But good luck finding a fan who mentions him among the all-time greats.
The gap between his contributions to football lore and his name recognition is rather substantial. Thankfully, we have the gridiron engineers called the Cold, Hard Football Facts to bridge the river of ignorance with their pigskin pontoon.
As Cold, Hard Football Facts regulars know, the Paul Brown School lords over the ranks of NFL coaches to this very day. Ewbank was a founding member of PBU.
Ewbank came of age in the heart of the all-important Gridiron Breadbasket. He played football with Brown at Miami University, the "Cradle of Coaches." The two reunited, this time as coaches, at Great Lakes Naval Station, a World War II-era power, and then again with the great Cleveland Browns dynasty of the 1940s and 50s. Ewbank coached linemen for the Browns and is considered by some to have pioneered modern pass-protection techniques. The success of his quarterbacks certainly speaks of the ability of his teams to protect the passer.
Ewbank was the first coach of note for the Colts franchise, which he took over in 1954, its second season after its original NFL franchise folded following the 1950 campaign.
The team failed to post a winning record in any of his first three seasons.
But things began to turn around in that third year, in 1956. It was before that season that Ewbank made one of the most fortuitous and insightful decision in the history of the game: he signed an unknown semi-pro quarterback off the sandlots of Pittsburgh, a guy named Johnny Unitas.
The rest, as they say, is history. Unitas rewrote the record books, and still holds many marks – including the truly improbable 47-game TD pass streak. From 1957 to 1967, Unitas made the Pro Bowl every year but one (1965).
Unitas certainly forged his own legend. But it was Ewbank's decision that made it possible.
Ewbank's decision to pull Unitas from the streets paid off just two years later. In 1958, Unitas produced one of the first great passing seasons in NFL history (172 for 301, 57.1%, 2,550 yards, 8.5 YPA, 24 TDs, 17 INTs).
The season concluded in glorious fashion: the first-ever overtime game in NFL history, as the Colts beat the Giants, 23-17, for the league championship. It launched the NFL into the TV era and has since been dubbed the "Greatest Game Ever Played."
And in this "Greatest Game Ever Played," Ewbank was the architect of the victory.
Just a handful of coaches have won consecutive NFL championship games, 12 to be exact. Ewbank became the fifth member of this elite list in 1959, when his Baltimore Colts met the Giants again in the NFL title game.
This time, the Colts left no doubt about the outcome, trouncing the Giants, 31-16.
Ewbank's career in Baltimore did not end well. After the back-to-back titles, the Colts struggled through three mediocre campaigns. Ewbank was shown the door following the 1962 season.
He wound up the next year with the N.Y. Jets of the upstart AFL.
The AFL was locked in a battle for talent with the NFL throughout the 1960s. It came to a head in 1965 when Ewbank and the Jets staged the biggest coup of the AFL-NFL talent wars by landing Alabama quarterback Joe Namath with a then-unbelievable $425,000 deal.
So a decade after grabbing Unitas from the semi-pro circuit in Pittsburgh, Ewbank helped pull another legendary talent from the clutches of the mighty NFL.
Ewbank would get his revenge on the Baltimore organization six years after it fired him.
His Jets, as all football fans know, were 17-point underdogs to the mighty NFL Colts in Super Bowl III. And, as all football fans know, his Jets shocked the Colts, 16-7, proving that the best of the AFL could compete and beat the best of the NFL. It's widely regarded today as the greatest upset in pro football history – and it probably was.
Sure, the AFL beat the NFL for the first time, after suffering resounding defeats in the first two Super Bowls. But history has forgotten the entire story: Ewbank's Jets didn't just beat the best NFL team of 1968. They beat one of the greatest NFL teams of all time. The Colts that year were 13-1 and they remain, at least in terms of average point differential, the single most dominant team in modern NFL history.
Baltimore's average game in 1968 was nearly a 3-to-1 victory (28.7 to 10.3).
And Ewbank beat 'em.
Namath is the name most closely associated with the Jets victory in Super Bowl III. But Ewbank might be more appropriate. After all, Namath was merely solid but unspectacular that day (17 for 28, 206 yards, 7.4 YPA, 0 TD, 0 INT).
It was Ewbank's team, from top to bottom, that beat the mighty Colts, including a defense that forced five turnovers and held the NFL's top offense to 7 points.
So there you have it, the Ewbank legacy rolled up in a nifty little crepe of Cold, Hard Football Facts, a tasty order of pigskins in a blanket:
- He's a seminal figure of the Gridiron Breadbasket, the "Cradle of Coaches" and the Paul Brown School of Coaching.
- He won three NFL championships
- He's the only coach to lead two different teams to NFL titles
- He won the "Greatest Game Ever Played"
- He's the architect of the greatest upset in NFL history
- He launched the Johnny Unitas legend
- He helped steal Joe Namath away from the NFL
- And, as much as any figure, he proved the AFL could compete with the NFL at any level
- As much as any coach, he helped propel the NFL into its modern era of pop-culture dominance
For a guy few people remember today, it's a remarkable legacy.
Ewbank's legacy is intricately intertwined with the greatest moments and personalities in the history of professional football. So why is he rarely mentioned among the all-time great coaches?
Well, the answer is found right there in the indelible etchings of the Cold, Hard Football Facts: his record.
In 20 years leading the Colts and Jets, Ewbank barely won 50 percent of his games, ending his career with a mark of 130-129-1 (.502).
Amid the glorious championship seasons and legendary games were struggles to build two upstart franchises and more than a handful of mediocre seasons.
His career also sputtered to something of an inglorious end. With a hobbled Namath at quarterback, the Jets were a dreadful 21-35 in his final four seasons (1970-73). His last team might have been the worst of his career, a 4-10 Jets club that seemed to struggle in every area.
So Ewbank's career did not end well ... careers in the NFL rarely do.
But his career was peppered with more highlights than one can reasonably expect from a single figure, especially one who remains so anonymous to the average fan.
So here's to you, Weeb. Happy 100th birthday.
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