By Dr. Ken 


Though I was a New York Giants fan dating from my late 1950’s introduction to professional football, I had a soft spot for some of the poorer teams in the National Football League. If one liked perennial underdogs, there were choices in the 1950’s, despite the cyclical nature of all sports. This is somewhat lost in today’s commercially driven league that is so financially dependent upon fan, media, and corporate involvement. Some teams had consistently solid play and good coaching and though they might have missed the brass ring annually, they gave a good showing and produced name players. Others managed the emergence of a superstar through the decade, allowing for fan interest and reasonable performances. Then there were the hapless and at times, loveable losers.


 The excellent 1956 backfield of Ollie Matson, Johnny Olszewski, Lamar McHan, and Dave Mann could not remove the Chicago Cardinals from the bottom of the barrel among NFL teams

Once the teams that were absorbed from the All American Football Conference became “more established” as NFL members, and the last of what would become the defunct squads faded into history’s footnotes, one would expect a number of teams to have an excellent year or two, a few good ones, and perhaps a poor one. Today’s professional football fan has been fed a formula that guarantees mediocrity across the board, a bloated playoff schedule, and manipulation of the rules and scheduling that allow for every team to remain competitive if not year-to-year, at least for most of any specific season, especially within the course of a decade. The concept of parity and having twenty-two teams in a thirty-two team league fighting for a playoff spot as the NFL enters the final week or two of the season makes for big money.


A brief perusal of the record book reveals that the word parity did not apply for those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up and become football fans within the decade of the 1950’s. The Cleveland Browns entered the league and finished far ahead of everyone else with a 92-35-2 record, besting the Giants with their 78-44-3 and the Detroit Lions at 73-49-4 marks. The Bears and Rams qualified as “usually solid” with 70-50-2 and 70-52-3 records respectively while the Cardinals, Packers, and Redskins represented the worst performers. The usually morose Cardinals came out of the 1940’s as a decent squad with a core group of “good” players but they slogged through the ‘50’s posting no better than a horrid .288 winning percentage. Older fans recall that it took Vince Lombardi’s arrival in Green Bay in 1959 to pull them away from their overall .333 win percentage. Prior to “The Lombardi Era” the team’s poor play combined with the small town, relatively isolated and frigid living conditions, made the threat that “If you don’t improve or play harder, you’ll be shipped off to Green Bay” very real and was perhaps the most damning phrase a slumping player could hear.


Consistently poor play and cold temperatures made Green Bay an avoidable consequence for pro players of the Fifties. Halfback Joe Johnson was one of their better performers in the 1955 season

Somewhere just below the mid-line of the NFL’s pack of twelve teams, sat the Steelers and Eagles. No conference titles, fewer outstanding players than teams with a worse decade-long record, and a reputation for underachieving built upon primarily four-to-six victory seasons left their fans frustrated with a “…if only they could’ve gotten one more score” mentality. Unlike the Cardinals as the most obvious example, the Steelers were never a bottom-of-the-barrel crew that couldn’t get out of their own way but they were the guys that just missed or went into the tank after a promising start. The cornerstones of the Steelers reputation for the decade were unfortunately built upon poor coaching and less than sterling personnel decisions. If the names Earl Morrall [see Helmet Hut http://www.helmethut.com/Features/Dr.Ken128.html ], Len Dawson, Jack Kemp, Abner Haynes, and oh, allow me to ask the readers to give me a moment, yes, uh, oh of course, Johnny Unitas mean anything in the course of NFL history, one immediately understands the description of “less than sterling personnel decision” because all of them were the property of, yet contributed little to the destiny of the Steelers before being discarded. For those of a specific age range, they lament the fact that the great John Unitas was in camp as Pittsburgh’s 1955 tenth round draft choice yet was not allowed to throw even one pass during the pre-season or what was then referred to as the exhibition games season. Head Coach Walt Kiesling had determined that Unitas was not intelligent enough to run a professional football offense despite his rather successful record playing for local St. Justin High School and demonstrating ability at the University Of Louisville.

He was given few practice repetitions and despite throwing for three or four touchdowns and making a number of long rush plays in scrimmages, he never entered any of the pre-season contests and was unceremoniously released. To the credit of Arthur Rooney, Senior’s sons, they considered Unitas their favorite quarterback in the ’55 camp and lobbied hard to keep him, despite their young ages. Needless to say, most fans know the rest of the story; a year of manual labor to support his young family, semi-pro ball on the weekends for seven dollars a game, and then a shot with the Colts before pro football history was made. If Unitas had been given a real opportunity, while there is no assurance that he would have been the Hall Of Fame player he became with the Colts, I do believe it is safe to say that the Steelers would not have needed to bring other potential quarterback starters to subsequent camps.

In 1957 the Steelers brought in a bevy of quarterbacks but obviously did not know what to do with them. Their first draft choice was Len Dawson of Purdue who never got off of the bench. On September 16, 1957 they traded for the Forty Niners 1956 first round pick Earl Morrall. Earl delivered, invited to the Pro Bowl and certainly giving every indication that he could carry the Steelers in the future.

With Buddy Parker becoming the Steelers head coach as the ’58 season was to begin, he traded Morrall to the Lions for an aging Bobby Layne who was “his guy,” and while Layne did well as a Steelers leader, it could easily be argued that he was well past his best days and whatever he brought to the table could have been exceeded by a young but maturing Morrall. As a back up, Morrall proved his worth, especially when placed into a starting position with every team he played for subsequent to the Steelers. Dawson remained on the Steelers bench, throwing seventeen passes in three years as Parker had the guy he wanted in Layne. Traded to the Browns with end Gern Nagler for wide receiver Preston Carpenter and defensive back Junior Wren, Dawson languished in Cleveland also, sitting behind starter Milt Plum. Dawson however, also eventually hit his stride and became a Pro Football Hall of Fame member.



A third quarterback in the Steelers ’57 camp came out of California’s Occidental College, a recent cut from the Lions, but Jack Kemp appeared in only four games, completed eight of eighteen passes, and was released before the 1958 season that was spent on the taxi squads of both the Forty Niners and Giants. Kemp too, “sort of developed” after his stay with the Steelers, eventually playing extremely well for the AFL San Diego Chargers and leading the Bills to two Championships.



Starter Bobby Layne discusses strategy with 1958 back up, and soon to be released, Jack Kemp



Take a moment and picture John Unitas as the Steelers starting quarterback with Earl Morrall, Len Dawson, or Jack Kemp as his back up. Wow, I would think that the Pittsburgh quarterback position would have been in very competent and capable hands for a decade or more with results far exceeding that brought by Bobby Layne, Ed Brown, Rudy Bukich, Bill Nelsen, Kent Nix, George Izo, and Dick Shiner. To round out the offense, having Abner Haynes as part of a Steelers backfield would have amplified the mostly uninspired rushing attack the Steelers presented as they entered the 1960’s. The team always had a “good” running back or two through the 1950’s with Fran Rogel and Tom “The Bomb” Tracy as top ten finishers, and an aging John Henry Johnson provided solid performances as they entered the early ‘60’s. However, had they signed their 1960 fifth round draft choice Haynes out of North Texas State who went on to be one of the early greats of the American Football League, only speculation can answer how much better they would have been. In what was considered to be typical Pittsburgh Steelers fashion, the hard drinking Parker and team leader Layne while in Dallas, decided that it was an inspired idea to extol the advantages offered by the Steelers to the Haynes family who lived locally. Allegedly drunk, more accurately very drunk, the Steelers duo rang the Haynes doorbell at 5:30 AM and made their sales pitch, one not well accepted by Abner’s father who was a minister. Suitably directed to the AFL Dallas entry of Lamar Hunt, Haynes as has been widely quoted “became our franchise player before there were franchise players.”


After years of up and down, “fair-to-middlin,’” inconsistent, and often poor play of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they emerged with a talented and dominating team that was marked by what is considered to be the greatest draft class of all time with their 1974 group that included Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, and Mike Webster. The work of Art Rooney, Jr. and Bill Nunn elevated the Steelers personnel talent level to the top of the league but with Unitas, Morrall, Dawson, and/or Kemp, they might have dominated much earlier. Every franchise has made errors in judging and securing player talent but the glaring errors of the 1950’s Steelers is perhaps the most noticeable and makes for much speculation.