Reading and Thinking Football

Football, including books thereon and idiosyncratic thinking thereabout

Book Review: National Forgotten League

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When I reviewed Pro Football Chronicle, a great data dump on the first seven decades of the NFL by Dan Daly and Bob O’Donnell, just short of four years ago, I noted its 1990 publication date and the need for a new edition. In National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years, which came out last fall, Daly delivered not that book but something even harder, more useful, and more impressive, a research dump on not the two most recent decades of NFL football but the league’s first half century with plenty of information that was new even to me. The tale of Sid Luckman’s father rather stands out in that regard.

Like ChronicleForgotten is not a single narrative but instead a series of brief vignettes told over one or a couple pages. That makes it hard to summarize or, for me, write an interesting extended review off of; compare, say, The Missing Ring, in which I took the normal book reviewer’s trick of writing about not the book but the book’s subject. Instead, I’ll take note of one of Daly’s vignettes. In the chapter on the 1950s, Daly covers what he calls the Last Sleeper Play. The Sleeper Play, a.k.a. the Hideout Play, is the old trick where a receiver would fake going out of the game, then stop by the sidelines. It was particularly effective late in games in ill-lit stadiums, though Daly notes the Bears used it in daylight in 1932 by taking advantage of the lineman. The Rams pulled it off on the first play from scrimmage in 1954. Commissioner Bert Bell declared the play “unsportsmanlike” and illegal. All done, right?

Well, mostly. Article 5-2-5 of the NFL Rulebook covers the basic situation, requiring offensive substitutes to “move onto the field of play or the end zone as far as the inside of the field numerals prior to the snap to be a legal substitution.” 5-2-5 carries with it a Note, “The intent of the rule is to prevent teams from using simulated substitutions to confuse an opponent, while still permitting a player(s) to enter and leave without participating in a play in certain situations …”

I don’t have old NFL rulebooks, but I’d bet the Note that applies to 5-2-5 was added, or at least modified, after 2006. The reason for the change, I believe, was a simple one and stems from the Titans-Colts game in Indianapolis in Week 6 of that 2006 season. The Titans had the ball at their own 32 with :03 to play in the first half. Most teams would take a knee in that situation, especially holding a 10-0 lead on the road in a game where they were a 17-point underdog. Jeff Fisher, though, ran the modern version of the Sleeper Play. Unfortunately, I don’t have video of this game to refresh my memory, but as best I can recall it went something like this. Wideout Drew Bennett joined the rest of his teammates in the huddle. As the offense broke the huddle, he started trotting toward the Titans’ sideline, with Fisher apparently exhorting him to get off the field. As he neared the sidelines, though, the Titans’ intent became clear. They snapped the ball and Bennett took off up the sidelines. The Colts, knowing the Titans needed to score on one play, had defenders well back. As I noted in my (terrible) breakdown (#9), future Titan Nick Harper obstructed Bennett’s route and Mike Doss came down with the interception. I believe the NFL league office that week issued a clarification that simulated substitutions like the one Fisher tried would also be considered illegal, and the Sleeper Play returned to its grave, at least until the next coach gets creative and tries to resurrect it.

National Forgotten League is probably not for everybody, but if you’re at all a fan of pro football history I strongly recommend it.


Written by Tom Gower

July 7, 2013 at 16:27

Posted in Book Reviews

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  1. […] Outsiders Almanac 2013, my favorite football reads of the year were Dan Daly’s National Forgotten League and John Sayle Watterson’s College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy. Honorable […]

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