Pining for the ol' Black & Blue Division

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 20, 2010



(Ed. Note: A substantially similar version of this story originally ran on Dec. 1, 2006. We thought today was a fitting time to rerun the piece. Short version: the lousy, antiseptic NFC North of today is a far cry from the gritty old NFC Central of the late 1960s that first earned the moniker the Black & Blue Division. In fact, we call the sh*tty modern version the Black & Blow Division.)
 
The Vikings played their first home game outdoors in 29 years on Monday night. The game was played in bitter winter weather, with snow flakes flittering about. And the opponent was Minnesota's chilly Midwestern rivals from Chicago, another old Black & Blue Division team.
 
It was the perfect weather you'd expect from a team that represents America's Scandivanian capital of Minnesota, from a franchise that, in tribute to the region's ethnic heritage, labeled itself the Vikings. As we noted on our Facebook page Monday, "Leif Erickson wouldn't have built a pussy dome when he could have played football in the snow."
 
The bone-chilling weather and the onset of winter today remind us of one of the most glorious periods in NFL history: the rise of the old "Black & Blue Division," which holds a special place in the ice-filled hearts of the pigskin romanticists.
 
Back in their brief heyday, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota formed the NFL's Central Division. They fielded legends of the game who played rough, tough, mean-spirited, defensive-minded and oh-so-beautiful football – outdoors in the NFL's coldest and most northerly outposts.
 
The teams remain rivals today, as the four members of the NFC North. It's the only division in football that looks exactly that same way today as it did in 1967, when the NFL first went to a divisional format.
 
But the similarities end there. The truth is that the Black & Blue Division is no more, relegated to the dustbin of pigskin history.
 
It has been replaced by bland, air-conditioned, star-less, cardboard-flavored football. Even worse, the NFC North is generally uncompetitive. It's so bad, that we've given it a new name: the Black & Blow Division.
 
The Bears have been pretty good in recent years and may, in fact, represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year. But otherwise, this division blows like the winds off the Great Lakes that chill the frosty, football-loving denizens of the NFC North – people who deserve better. People who deserve the football they once had in the late 1960s.
 
It's remarkable how the mighty Black & Blue Division has fallen when examined in the pigskin petri dish of the Cold, Hard Football Facts. Here is a comparison of the Black & Blue Division of 1967 and the Black & Blow Division of today.
 
You'll be amazed at the collection of legends that roamed the field and stalked the sidelines of the Central Division back at its outset and the sharp contrast provided by the antiseptic NFC North football of today.
 
DEFENSIVE STUDS
The Black & Blue Division of 1967
Dick Butkus was in the third year of his Hall of Fame career with Chicago, terrorizing ballcarriers for a defense known as the Monsters of the Midway.
 
Green Bay fielded a defense littered with Hall of Famers: defensive backs Herb Adderley and Willie Wood, defensive linemen Willie Davis and Henry Jordan and, of course, ferocious middle linebacker Ray Nitschke.
 
Detroit in 1967 welcomed defensive Rookie of the Year Lem Barney, a cornerback who entered the Hall of Fame in 1992. Perhaps its biggest star was up front, in defensive lineman Alex Karras.
 
Minnesota's opponents had to run the ball on a defensive line that included future Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page and that would soon become known as The Purple People Eaters – one of the stingiest defenses in football year after year. Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause, the NFL's all-time interception leader, joined the Vikings a year later.
 
The Black & Blow Division of today
Chicago continues to field great defenders and may end up sending one or more stoppers to the Hall of Fame when all is said in done.
 
Detroit's Ndamukong Suh is a Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidate. Green Bay's Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews are great players. The Vikings have fielded Jared Allen and some nice run defenses in recent years.
 
But generally speaking, you have a hard enough time finding Pro Bowlers, let alone the Hall of Fame-caliber defenders who lorded over the Central Division in 1967.
 
COACHES
The Black & Blue Division of 1967
The 1967 season was historic for many reasons, not the least of which were the Hall of Fame legends who stalked the sidelines for all four Black & Blue Division teams.
 
Chicago's George Halas was coaching his last season in a pro football career that began in 1920. Vince Lombardi, coach, pop-culture icon and Time Magazine cover boy, was in his last year in Green Bay and would end it with an unprecedented third straight victory in an NFL championship game and second consecutive Super Bowl title. Minnesota had just hired Bud Grant, who would lead the Vikings to four Super Bowls and field some of the most dominant teams in modern NFL history.
 
All three still rank today among the winningest coaches in NFL history.
 
The Lions were led by Joe Schmidt, who had just retired as a Hall of Fame middle linebacker in 1965, following a career in which he helped lead Detroit to its last two NFL championships (1953 and 1957). He was not a very successful coach – though Detroit fans today would kill for the 43-34-7 record he put up in six seasons on the sidelines. In fact, Schmidt led the Lions to a 10-4 record in 1970, a mark they've matched or equaled just once in the 36 seasons since (12-4 in 1991). 
 
The Black & Blow Division of today
Lovie Smith is the most successful coach in the NFC North (62-48 career record through Week 15 2010). He led the Bears to a Super Bowl in 2006 and has a contender agian in 2010. But he continues to fight for respect and a decent contract.
 
His divisional competitors have little distinction. The Vikings booted Brad Childress this year and are now led by interim coach Leslie Frazier. Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 46-32 as an NFL head coach, but has fielded two straight teams that fail to live up to their statistical billing. Detroit's Jim Schwartz appears to have brought some improvements to Motown, but has still only 6-24 in his nearly two seasons as head coach.
 
BATTLEFIELDS
The Black & Blue Division of 1967
Bloomington, Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay were the four coldest cities in the NFL back in 1967, and all four teams played outdoors in legendary arenas where the weather was the home team's great ally.
 
The "Frozen Tundra" of Lambeau Field is engrained into the psyche of American pop culture, thanks in large part to this very 1967 season. The NFL championship game that year was the famous "Ice Bowl" between Dallas and Green Bay.
 
The Bears still played within the ivy-covered brick walls of ancient Wrigley Field, the arena they would call home from 1921 to 1970.
 
Detroit played in Tiger Stadium, which hosted four NFL championship games – three of them Lions victories. In fact, all four titles in the history of the franchise, and all five championship game appearances, came when the Lions played outdoors at Tiger Stadium (which hosted the team from 1935 to 1974).
 
The Vikings played at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, the coldest city in the NFL (average December low of 11 degrees). The Vikings reached four Super Bowls when they played at the Met.
 
The Black & Blow Division of today
The Packers and Bears continue to honor the Gridiron Gods and play outdoors. Not so coincidentally, they're the only two teams in the division to win a Super Bowl since the decline of the Black & Blue Division.
 
Minnesota and Detroit now play in antiseptic indoor arenas that have stripped these organizations of an obvious competitive advantage. The Vikings, who won four NFC titles in an eight-year period when they played outdoors, have not been back to a Super Bowl since moving indoors. The Lions boast a single playoff victory since they moved indoors.
 
The Vikings' best shot at a Super Bowl came in their 15-1 season of 1998. They lost at home in the NFC title game to Atlanta. Imagine if the Falcons, a Southern dome team, were instead forced to play at the old Met, where the average January low was 4 degrees. It's hard to picture Atlanta winning that game.
 
Back in 1967, opponents from cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta had to fear a late-season visit to Minnesota or Detroit. Today, warm-weather teams welcome the opportunity.
 
OFFENSIVE SUPERSTARS
The Black & Blue Division of 1967
The Black & Blue Division was dominated by defense, but offensive superstars abounded.
 
Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers was in his third year with the Bears – all three were Pro Bowl seasons – and gave Chicago one of the most explosive offensive performers in the history of football. Sayers averaged 4.7 yards per carry in 1967 and averaged a remarkable 37.7 yards on every kick return. Only one player in NFL history posted a better average per kick return: Travis Williams, in this same 1967 season, with Green Bay (41.1 YPR).
 
The Packers were led by Hall of Famer Bart Starr, the greatest postseason quarterback in NFL history. He still holds the record for highest career postseason passer rating (104.8) – remarkable considering the era in which he played – and went 9-1 in his playoff career. He was protected by Hall of Fame tackle Forrest Gregg.
 
Detroit hit the jackpot with first-round draft pick Mel Farr, who was named the NFL's offensive Rookie of the Year and averaged 4.2 yards per carry – despite running the ball every other game against the likes of Nitschke, Butkus, Eller and Page.
 
The Vikings were the only team without electrifying offensive stars. But they could count on fiery quarterback Joe Kapp, who would lead them to their first Super Bowl appearance in 1969, and future Pro Bowl wide receiver Gene Washington, who averaged 29.5 yards per catch in 1967.
 
The Black & Blow Division of today
The biggest star in the division, BrettFavre, is a decade past his prime and continues to cling to a job that he does not deserve. (That job may have ended Monday night: BrettFavre was knocked out of the game in Minnesota's 40-14 loss to Chicago Monday night.)
 
Chicago relies on Jay Cutler, a guy who has never put up more than mediocre numbers (88.3 rating here in 2010).
 
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers has plenty of star potential and star numbers. But he has yet to emerge as a signature player in the NFL and won't until the Packers return to championship form.
 
Detroit hasn't fielded a single offensive player worth the price of admission since Barry Sanders retired at the end of the 1998 season.
 
COMPETITIVENESS
Black & Blue Division of 1967
The Black & Blue Division won the first two Super Bowls and represented the NFL/NFC in six of the first 11.
 
The 1967 season ended with a remarkable performance by the Packers. They went on the road and dominated the 11-1-2 Rams, 28-7, in the divisional playoffs. The Rams had fielded the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense in the NFL that season. The Packers followed that up with their iconic Ice Bowl victory over Dallas, and then wiped out the AFL's 13-1 Raiders in Super Bowl II, 33-14. The Raiders had fielded the No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense in the AFL that year.
 
Black & Blow Division of  today
Despite the strong showing of the Bears this season, the NFC North has not been a power division in years. The 2010 season is no exception. Its four teams are a humble 17-16 outside the division this season and 5-9 against the AFC East.
 
The Black & Blue Division won the first two Super Bowls. The Black & Blow Division was won just two Super Bowls in the 42 years since then. It's produced just three conference champions since the end of Minnesota's ill-fated Glory Days in 1976.
 
WHAT WENT WRONG?
The first year of the Black & Blue Division was also its greatest, highlighted, of course, by the Green Bay Super Bowl victory. The division's icy armor soon began to melt away.
 
Lombardi retired after the Super Bowl, before returning in Washington for a single season. Halas called it quits, too.
 
Butkus was out of football after the 1973 season – 1967 would be the last time he played for a team with a winning record (7-6-1).
 
Nitschke was named to the NFL's all-time team in 1969, and then retired in 1972.
 
Starr had one more great season left in him in 1968, but was done after the 1971 season. He returned in 1975 as Green Bay's head coach, but proved much better at quarterbacking than coaching. He went 52-76-3 in nine seasons, and made just one playoff appearance after a 5-3-1 campaign in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
 
The brief but brilliant career of the oft-injured Sayers was effectively over after the 1969 season.
 
The Lions had their last great shot in that 10-4 season under Schmidt in 1970, but were shut out by Dallas in the playoffs.
 
Minnesota would carry the torch for the Black & Blue Division for the next several years, earning those four NFC titles from 1969 to 1976. But they lost all four Super Bowls and the division's reputation withered with each humiliating defeat. Today, the Vikings stand not as one of the great teams of all time, but as one of the almost-greats.
 
The division's aura was snuffed out for good by the mid-1970s. The Lions moved into the Silverdome in 1975. Tampa Bay helped spoil the party in 1976, when the expansion franchise was forced into the NFC Central Division. It was a sunny and uncompetitive intruder that also corrupted the brutal sanctity of the Black & Blue Division. The Vikings moved indoors in 1982.
 
The weather that helped give the Black & Blue Division much of its aura – not to mention its competitive advantage – had been stripped away. Tampa was ushered into the NFC South when the league underwent its most recent realignment in 2002, giving the NFC North the same four-team composition as the old Central Division.
 
But, by then, it was far too late. Today, the glory of the Black & Blue Division, an era of legendary coaches leading Hall of Famer performers into battle on icy outdoor playing fields, is just a faded memory.

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