The Fifth Down - The New York Times N.F.L. Blog
May 17, 2013, 7:10 am Comment
George Sauer’s Love-Hate Connection With Football
By ANDY BARALL
New York Jets
George Sauer was on his way to a possible Hall of Fame career when, in 1971, he suddenly retired, at age 27. By that time, he was the most prominent of a group of players who had become harsh critics of the game and its role in American society. For Sauer, the decision to walk away was also personal. Sauer died on May 7 of congestive heart failure in Westerville, Ohio, after battling Alzheimer’s disease. He was 69. A few thoughts:
George Sauer had the heart and soul of a poet. Sensitive and intelligent, he didn’t think he needed to hate his opponent to be successful on the football field. Sauer valued the competition for its own sake, the friendships he made, and those moments between teammates when no words were needed.
Sauer loved football, but by the late 1960s he had become increasingly disillusioned by what the game had become: the commercialization, the win-at-all-cost mentality, the trail of broken bodies. So, in his prime, at age 27, he quit.
Sauer was offered a football scholarship to the University of Texas on the day he was born. His father, George Sr., had played for the Longhorns’ coach, Dana X. Bible, at the University of Nebraska in the early ’30s. After three seasons with the Green Bay Packers, he went on to a long and successful career in coaching and scouting, including seven years with the New York Titans/Jets as their general manager in 1962 and as the director of player personnel from 1963-1968.
When Sauer finally decided to go to Texas, his mother showed him the letter they received from Bible all those years before. “As for George Jr.,” it read, “don’t worry. I’ve got a uniform reserved for him here (in) 1961.” “It was as though something was driving me from behind to do those things,” Sauer said. “The memory of that letter has stayed with me because I think it was important in my eventual retirement.” (NFL Films)
Sauer was a wide receiver on Texas teams that finished 11-0 and won the national championship in 1963, and 10-1 in 1964. In his final college game, the 1965 Orange Bowl, Sauer caught a 69-yard touchdown pass from his future teammate with the Jets, Jim Hudson, in a 21-17 victory over top ranked Alabama. By that time, the Jets had already drafted Joe Namath — (In those days the draft was held during the season. The 1965 A.F.L. draft took place on Nov. 28, 1964) — and Sauer had decided to leave school early and join his father in New York.
In his rookie year, Sauer received significant playing time, and by his second season he was the full-time starter at split end opposite the future Hall of Famer at flanker, Don Maynard. That year, he led the Jets with 1,079 receiving yards, the first of three straight seasons with at least a thousand yards, all in 14-game schedules.
In 84 regular-season games over six seasons (1965-1970), Sauer had 309 receptions for 4,965 yards (16.1 yards-per-catch) and 28 touchdowns. He led the A.F.L. in receptions with 75 in 1967. Sauer was named All-A.F.L. in 1967 and 1968, and he was selected to four eastern division all-star teams, from 1966-1969.
In size (6 feet 2 inches and about 195 pounds), speed, hands, body control, and route-running ability, Sauer reminded the Jets’ coach, Weeb Ewbank, of Raymond Berry, the Hall of Famer he’d coached in Baltimore. Sauer excelled against both man-to-man and zone coverages. He ran precise, disciplined routes and he had deceptive speed, as Lenny Lyles of the Colts found out in Super Bowl 3.
Sauer competed just as hard in the fourth quarter as he did in the first, whether his team was way ahead or way behind. “When you come out of a game after covering Sauer,” said Willie Brown, Oakland’s Hall of Fame cornerback, “you’re more tired than you would be covering a faster guy.
Sauer would keep working on every play, whether he was the designated receiver or not. All the receivers should do it, but they don’t.” (Paul Zimmerman, “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,” Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 110)
With the increasing prevalence of zone defenses in the 1960s, playing wide receiver became more than just beating a single defender one-on-one. Sauer had the ability to read the coverage at full speed. He had a sense of where the linebackers and defensive backs would be, and how to find the seams between them. He would then throttle down, turn and face the quarterback. After making the catch, he protected the ball and braced himself for the contact that would soon arrive. It’s a skill he first developed as a boy:
We had about 13 trees in our backyard when I was a kid in Waco, Texas. My dad would throw the ball to me close to the trees and I’d bounce off ‘em after I caught it. I remember my father telling my mother one time, ‘With his hands he should be an end.’
In the NFL, when I would catch a pass, sometimes it was like I was still bouncing off those trees in our big ol’ backyard in Waco. Except that those trees were chasing me. (Zimmerman, p. 114)
Most of all, Sauer enjoyed the act of catching the ball. “When it’s thrown in my direction,” he said, “I know it’s my ball, not the man’s covering me, not the ground’s — but mine. I follow it into my hands with such concentration that I can see the grain. I can even see the printing.” (Zimmerman, p. 118)
The Jets steadily improved, from 5-8-1 in 1965, to 6-6-2 in 1966, to 8-5-1 in 1967. In 1968 they finished 11-3 and won the Eastern division for the first time. They then defeated the Raiders in the A.F.L. title game to advance to Super Bowl 3 against the N.F.L. champions, the Baltimore Colts. For Sauer and the Jets, all the hard work and preparation, both in the meeting rooms and on the practice field, was about to pay off.
Baltimore’s pass defense in the Super Bowl was geared primarily to containing Don Maynard, one of pro football’s premier deep threats of that era. In 1968, Maynard, a long strider with tremendous speed, averaged 22.8 yards per reception to lead the league, and half of his 10 touchdown catches covered at least 50 yards. In the A.F.L. championship game, Maynard had 6 receptions for 118 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Colts played a three-deep zone, a standard coverage of the day, rotated to the strong side, toward Maynard. The left cornerback, Bobby Boyd, dropped to the underneath zone while the strong safety, Jerry Logan, was responsible for the deep outside third.
Early in the game, on their second series, the Jets had a first-and-10 on their 35. With the ball on the left hash mark, Maynard had plenty of room to operate on the wide side of the field. Namath sent him deep down the right sideline and he had a step on Logan at the Colts’ 25, but the pass was slightly overthrown. It appeared to be just another incompletion but, as it turned out, it was one of the game’s most important plays.
Maynard, who came into the game with a tender hamstring, had demonstrated he could go deep. As a result, the Colts, except when they blitzed, remained in that strong side zone for all but a handful of plays. That left Sauer on the other side of the field with Don Shinnick, Baltimore’s 33-year old outside linebacker, and Lenny Lyles, their 32-year old right cornerback. Maynard didn’t have a reception that day, but he nevertheless made an important contribution to the Jets’ victory.
Namath targeted Sauer 12 times and completed 8 for 133 yards. Sauer had consecutive catches on the Jets’ 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter: a 14 yard dig route in front of Lyles in zone coverage, and an 11-yard catch and run on a quick out along the left sideline.
On their next possession, Namath and Sauer defeated the Baltimore blitz. That time, Lyles was in man coverage with inside leverage. Sauer raced by him on a fade down the sideline for a 35-yard gain. Late in the third quarter, with Lyles in outside leverage, Sauer beat him to the inside for a 39-yard reception that set up the field goal that gave the Jets a 16-0 lead. It was Namath’s last pass attempt of the game.
Meanwhile, the Colts’ 12 meaningful possessions resulted in one touchdown, two missed field goals, three punts, four interceptions, one fumble lost, and one turnover on downs. Baltimore’s offense came away with just 7 points on five trips inside New York’s 20-yard line.
Green Bay had won the first two Super Bowls, 35-10 over Kansas City, and 33-14 against Oakland. The Jets’ victory that day provided much-needed credibility to the A.F.L. and to the Super Bowl.
When Sauer retired, in the spring of 1971, he advanced a critique of pro football that included phrases like “inhumanly brutal,” “militaristic structure” and “chauvinistic authority.” And yet, three years later he was catching passes again, this time in front of sparse crowds under the dim lights at Downing Stadium on Randalls Island for the New York Stars of the World Football League. He was even an assistant coach for two seasons with the Carolina Chargers of the American Football Association.
The roots of Sauer’s retirement ran deeper, to a quiet handshake with his father in the locker room after Super Bowl 3. His father had played in, and won, the 1936 N.F.L. championship game with the Packers. “I think all of us need to feel as competent as the person who is our example in life,” he said. “I think I had finally done that.” (NFL Films)
At that moment, Sauer realized that, as he said many years later, “I didn’t have anything more to prove in football” and “I needed to find a new direction.”
“I was trying to find my own way,” he said. “I didn’t want to always be my father’s son. I wanted to be not George Jr. I wanted to be myself.”
Andy Barall writes about pro football history for The Fifth Down.