Whenever the NFL returns, it will look different. How different? We don't know yet. But the next NFL season is likely to be a landmark in the long history of the game. With that in mind, here are the three most transformational seasons in NFL history. (Cue John Facenda.)


The National Football League was coming off one of its finest hours. Led by fabled quarterback Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts had defeated the New York Giants in sudden death overtime at Yankee Stadium for the '58 title in what was dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played." In many ways, that contest proved to be one of the most pivotal moments in the league's history.

But other things were afoot entering the 1959 season. The once-proud Green Bay Packers, winners of six championships during the league's early days, had gone 11 straight years without a winning season, so they hired an assistant coach from the New York Giants named Vince Lombardi. The Packers would finish 7-5 in his debut season, lose the 1960 NFL Championship Game at Philadelphia, and then capture five of the next seven NFL titles -- including the first two Super Bowls. The Pack never suffered a losing season in Lombardi's nine seasons.

Even before the '59 season unfolded, though, another series of events began that would also prove crucial. That summer, the American Football League was formed via the efforts of eigh franchise owners (led by Lamar Hunt). These eight became known as the "Foolish Club." Their product would hit the field in 1960 with teams in Dallas, Houston, Boston, New York, Buffalo, Denver, Oakland and Los Angeles. The AFL conducted its own draft and would go onto do so until 1967, when both leagues (on the verge of a merger) held the first common draft. But from 1960 until 66, many players were selected by both leagues. Hence Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath was a first-round pick of the New York Jets and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965, and fellow Canton enshrinee-to-be Gale Sayers was the first choice of the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs that same year.

As it turned out, the Colts and Giants would meet for the championship again and Baltimore would win more convincingly this time. But the landscape of professional football was about to change forever.


The Super Bowl was already four years old (and had officially been given that name after the first two contests were called The AFL-NFL World Championship Game). Both leagues had won a pair of titles -- Vince Lombardi's Packers earned the first two while the AFL's New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively, won the latter two.

Now the leagues would combine on the field, with a few adjustments. In order to balance things out, the NFL's Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to join the newly-formed AFC, giving each conference 13 teams. There would be six divisions and a total of eight playoff teams (three division champions and a wild card per conference). The winner of the Super Bowl (in Miami's Orange Bowl) would now take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named after the now-late head coach of the Packers and Redskins.

The elder conference had its way with the AFC teams during the regular season, going 27-12-1 in the 40 head-to-head match-ups. The NFC's power teams included the Cowboys, Vikings and 49ers, while the Colts and the Dolphins (led by former Baltimore head coach Don Shula) were the only teams in the AFC to win at least 10 games. One of the best stories in the league came from Cincinnati, where Paul Brown's Bengals opened 1-6 only to run the table with seven straight wins to close the season and win the newly-formed AFC Central.

Ironically, the Colts would reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years, this time as a member of the AFC (making them the answer to a trivia question). And this time, it was quarterback Earl Morrall (one of the supposed goats of their historical loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III) who would replace an injured Johnny Unitas and lead Baltimore to a win over the Cowboys in one of the sloppiest games in the history of the Super Bowl.


Little did anyone know it at the time, but the re-emergence of a proud franchise would launch a dynasty and the term "West Coast Offense." Combine that with a very unlikely Super Bowl matchup and you have the modern foundation for "any given Sunday."

It would be a season of transition for the league on the field. The once-proud Steelers' dynasty of the 1970s had grown old and was no longer a playoff certainty. (They actually finished 8-8 in '81.) It was also a rough year for another perennial contender as the defending champion Oakland Raiders (bound for Los Angeles a year later), who had made history the previous season by becoming the first Wild Card team to win a Super Bowl, plummeted to 7-9. The Rams had reached the playoffs eight seasons in a row, from 1973 to 80, only to fall to 6-10.

Enter the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers, a pair of 6-10 teams the previous season and both several years removed from the playoffs. The former was coached by Forrest Gregg and led by always-accurate quarterback Ken Anderson, who made the most of utilizing massive running back Pete Johnson and a passing attack led by tight end Dan Ross and rookie wide receiver Cris Collinsworth. The latter team was beginning its third season under head coach Bill Walsh, had an up-and-coming quarterback in Joe Montana, and featured a rookie-laden secondary keyed by Ronnie Lott.

When the dust cleared from the regular season, the Bengals and 49ers owned the best records in their respective conferences. Cincinnati would eventually defeat the Chargers for the AFC title in the second-coldest game on record in league history. The Niners would march 89 yards in the closing minutes against the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game as Montana's pass to wideout Dwight Clark provided one of the sport's greatest-ever highlights. Hence the Bengals and 49ers would meet in Pontiac, Michigan for the title in what remains the only Super Bowl played by two teams that had losing records the previous season.

San Francisco opened up a big first-half lead and held on for a 26-21 win. It would be the start of a 18-year stretch which saw the franchise win 10 or more games in 17 seasons and reach the playoffs 16 times, winning a total of five Super Bowls along the way.

Russell S. Baxter is an NFL writer who worked for ESPN as a researcher and contributor for more than two decades, and has spent the last 40 years watching football. He is also blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk football? E-mail him at russell.baxter@yahoo.com.

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Thanks to outstanding golf blogger Steph Wei for her reminder that not only is Saturday the 54th birthday of legendary golfer Seve Ballesteros, it is also the 25th anniversary of his unwinding at the '86 Masters.

Former CBS commentator Ben Wright, profiled by ThePostGame.com earlier this week, tells a heart-rending story about that final round and its aftermath. Wright was stationed on the 15th hole, where Jack Nicklaus had just made eagle to continue his historic 30 on the back nine. He could tell that Ballesteros, normally as smooth as any player in PGA Tour history was rattled by all the noise and adulation following Nicklaus through the course. As Wright tells it, Ballesteros hurried his shot, perhaps because he wanted to make contact before another thunderous ovation bounced off the trees, and hooked it so badly that Wright predicted a water landing almost as soon as the end of the Spaniard's downswing.

Wright was right, and Seve finished fourth. The two ran into each other in the pro shop the next day, as Wright tells it, and by then, Ballesteros had seen the call. "You were very cruel to me," he told Wright, upon which the broadcaster replied, "Seve, you were cruel to yourself. That was a terrible shot."

The two did not speak for quite a while after that, until one day at dinner, Wright felt a tap on his shoulder. He spun around and Ballesteros was standing there, grinning. "You're right," he said, "it was a terrible shot!"

There were very few terrible shots in Seve's career. Older golfers still say he had the best imagination of any golfer they have ever seen. For all Phil Mickelson's wizardry around the greens, Ballesteros had even more. He was a magician.

We wish him a happy birthday, and our prayers as he fights against brain cancer.

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It was perhaps the most famous call in golf history. In 1986, a quarter century ago, CBS commentator Verne Lundquist watched Jack Nicklaus roll in a crucial birdie putt on the 17th hole at the Masters to take the lead. Lundquist happily proclaimed, "Yes sir!"

That phrase is now inseparable from that putt, that victory, and the Nicklaus legend. No retrospective of the Golden Bear's career will fail to include it. And yet something about that call has been lost to history.

Only minutes before -- 37 minutes to be exact -- on the 15th hole, Nicklaus made an even more important putt. This one was for an eagle, and it caused one of the loudest ovations anyone at Augusta can remember. And in the din of the moment, CBS commentator Ben Wright peered down from his tower and shouted to his audience of millions something that hardly anyone seems to recall:

"Yes sir!"

The video is hard to believe; Wright's call is unmistakable, and perhaps even more stirring than Lundquist's considering Nicklaus' celebration and the sound of all the patrons around him. Wright even added a lovely coda: "There's life in the old bear yet!" And somehow the call, much like Wright himself, has all but vanished from golf parlance.


On Thursday morning, as the Masters begins, Wright sits alone in his living room, three hours north of Augusta.

He is nearly 79 years old, and 15 years removed from the end of his broadcasting career. He has only watched his un-famous call once, when a friend in Connecticut forced him to sit and watch it a few years ago. He's still a little incredulous that a beloved golf phrase he uttered will forever be tied to another broadcaster who said the same thing only minutes after he did.

"I'm very bothered by it," Wright says. "It does rankle. A lot of people don't want to give me credit."

In a recent story in Golf Digest, Lundquist says, "I was not aware of it. Maybe on some really subconscious level I was aware of it and that's probably why I said it, but until Peter Kostis brought it up to me six or seven years ago, I didn't know."

Wright is only somewhat relieved that Lundquist has acknowledged his catch phrase.

"Lundquist has admitted it," Wright says, "but he doesn't do it often enough."

What's even more remarkable about Wright's call is how close he came to never making it himself.


Ben Wright grew up 30 miles outside London. His love of golf began when his grandfather gave him a club with a hickory shaft for his 10th birthday. But Wright loved rugby and racing even more. He was an amateur driver until at age 19, crashing so badly in Essex that his face was disfigured and he was unconscious for three days. Medics had to use the handles of teaspoons to "pull the nose out of my face," he says. Not long after, he started covering golf for the Financial Times. That's where he stayed for most of his career, doing so well that he was summoned to Bobby Jones' deathbed so the legend could question him about a column he wrote about the slowness of play in the sport.

CBS Sports called in 1973 and flew him from England to the L.A. Open. Wright climbed the tower after a heavily delayed transatlantic flight and started commentating on a Friday round. When he saw a missed putt, Wright proclaimed, "It's a whole new ballgame."

Legendary CBS producer Frank Chirkinian, who died last month, became irate that Wright had used an American idiom. "We pay you to talk like an Englishman!" Chirkinian growled. "You're supposed to sound like you have a plum in your mouth! If I ever understand another word you say, you're fired!"

Wright, deeply hurt, immediately went to the corner of the tower where airplane timetables were kept. (No PDAs back in those days.) He looked up the next flight back to Britain. Wright considered himself a writer, not an "entertainer," which is what Chirkinian wanted. He found a British Airways flight that night and tried to book a ticket. But the flight was sold out.

Sitting in his living room Thursday, nearly 40 years later, Wright says he never would have covered the Masters at all for CBS if a single seat had been available that night.


Weeks after that L.A. Open, Wright called the Masters for CBS. He got the rookie tower, on 14. After his first go-around, Chirkinian heard from Masters officials that "Young Wright," as he was known even into his 40s, was quite good indeed. Soon the Englishman was promoted to the 15th hole. That's where he remained for years, and that's where he stood in 1986, when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus heard his son and caddie, Jackie, tell him, "An eagle would come in useful, Dad."

Wright had been around long enough to remember Nicklaus hit 4-iron to that green before, in the 1975 Masters, which he won. But that day, he missed a very similar eagle putt. This time, Wright noted to his audience, Nicklaus and his son "have really looked at this one from every conceivable angle."

Wright's voice lowered as the patrons hushed. "And he will wait," he said, "for absolute quiet ... "

There was a lot of absolute quiet in those days. Chirkinian screamed at commentators who told the viewing audience when a putt missed the mark. "Really?!" he would yell, "How many million people knew that, you dumb expletive?"

So after his "Yes sir!," Wright said as little as he could. He let the crowd speak for him, in part because the noise was so loud that he couldn't hear Chirkinian in his ear. "It was the noisiest adulation I've ever heard," Wright says now.

Ironically, two holes later, Lundquist did hear the iconic producer chide him for saying the same thing Wright did.


Hard to believe it's been 15 years since Wright was banished for comments he made to the News-Journal of Wilmington, Del. "Lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf," Wright was quoted as saying. He still says he was misquoted, then explains he was relaying the words of LPGA insiders, but a 1995 story in Sports Illustrated pokes plenty of holes in any possible defense. Wright never got another shot, and for years he was devastated. "I hit the bottle hard," he says. So hard, in fact, that Jim Nantz and Pat Summerall had to come to his house, pry him from his bed, and force him into rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic.

"I haven't had a vodka since," he says.

Wright no longer calls golf, and he no longer writes golf. He misses both dearly. He says if he could, he'd come back to the Masters as a commentator or as a writer. He was back in Augusta this week for Chirkinian's memorial. He got a hug from Lundquist and a standing ovation for his speech. He says the event was "very emotional." He still calls Chirkinian his best friend.

It's a bit strange that in the era of falling and forgiveness, Ben Wright is still in exile. "I thought America was a place where people get a second chance," he says.

There will be no second chance for him, though. As much as he is beloved by his CBS brethren and by so many golf fans, both his phrase and his reputation remain in conflict. And it's crossed his mind that both suffered because of the very thing that made him so endearing: his Englishness. Wright says the noise of the crowd drowning out "Yes sir" cost him a place in history, but when asked if his British background might also be a factor, Wright says, "Maybe it was because of a racial handicap. I don't think it helped me. I'm inclined to believe that might be true."

So yes, there is some bitterness. "TV is so politically correct," Wright says, "I'm almost glad I'm out." But he shows far more in the way of gratitude. Wright will truthfully answer questions about the '86 Masters and his '96 firing, but he'll more eagerly volunteer stories about staying in the Eisenhower cabin and playing 54 holes before afternoon cocktails. He loves the Masters without hesitation, without limitation, without remorse. He will be watching closely this weekend from his home in Flat Rock, NC. And even though most Americans don't remember Ben Wright's contribution to its greatest golf tournament, Wright knows Augusta never forgets.

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