20 Jun 2006
by Mike Tanier
(EVERY STAT TELLS A STORY is a new occasional off-season feature telling the tale behind some of the strange, quirky stats that we find when poring through the NFL records researching our other articles.)
Modern football fans are used to kickers who convert over 75 percent of their field goal attempts. If a kicker misses three or four easy field goals in the span of a few games, he's likely to be out of a job in a few weeks.
But there was once a team, a playoff contender, that converted just 4-of-22 field goals in a season. This team didn't convert a field goal after their third game. And their primary field goal kicker for over two months was 1-of-15, making him arguably the worst kicker in modern NFL history.
The team was the 1965 Giants. The kicker was Bob Timberlake. His journey from college football star to historically inept kicker is a truly strange tale.
As an option quarterback, Bob Timberlake did it all for the 1964 Michigan Wolverines. He threw for 884 yards. He rushed for 819 yards and nine touchdowns. He led the team to a 34-7 victory over Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, and he nearly led them to a perfect record. Earlier in his college career, the multi-talented 220-pounder played halfback and returned kicks. He finished fourth in the Heisman balloting in 1964, losing out to Notre Dame's John Huarte, Tulsa's Jerry Rhome, and a fellow named Dick Butkus from Illinois. He earned All America notice and was Michigan's MVP.
Timberlake was also the punter and placekicker for the Wolverines that year, and while there's little evidence that he was truly terrible, he was known for his rushing and passing prowess, not his kicking. When the Giants drafted him in the third round of the 1965 draft, they made it clear that they were drafting a quarterback, not a kicker, punter, or running back.
He was described as a "direct, mature" individual by the New York Times when he signed a two-year deal worth $68,000. A bespectacled young man who planned to pursue a career in the ministry, Timberlake turned down offers from the Buffalo Bills in the AFL and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL because he had an opportunity to compete for a starting job with the Giants. Future Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle's tenure with the team was over, and Timberlake was expected to compete with Gary Wood in a new system that would emphasize rushing quarterbacks.
Timberlake's kicking wasn't thought to be an issue, as the Giants had Don Chandler, who had punted and kicked for Giants teams that had played in six NFL championship games. Frank Lambert of Mississippi was drafted as the team's punter. Yet another rookie, Yale FB Chuck Mercein, had kicking experience, as did defensive end Andy Stynchula. With all of that kicking talent on hand, Timberlake could concentrate on being the third most noteworthy rookie quarterback in New York: Joe Namath signed with the Jets that winter, and Huarte was also drafted by the Jets.
But soon after the 1964 season ended, and just before Timberlake signed with the Giants, Chandler was traded to the Packers for a draft pick. Chandler was coming off a poor season, and he asked the team to allow him to play football part-time in 1964 so he could concentrate on his insurance business. While Lambert was slated to replace Chandler as the punter, Stynchula and Mercein were the favorites to take over on field goals.
By 1965, the non-specialist kicker was a dying breed. "Kick specialists today are the elite of the game," proclaimed a Sporting News article on Novermber 20, 1965. "They are paid anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 for four months' work, just for their ability in putting the ball out on the opponents' two-yard line, or booting a 45-yard field goal or getting 40-for-40 extra points."
That Sporting News article revealed that there were only four teams in the NFL who still pulled their kickers from the offensive or defensive ranks: the Giants, Redskins, Lions and Colts. (In the AFL in 1965, only four teams used kick or punt specialists.) Four teams used combination kicker-punters like Chandler, while the rest either used a specialist punter like the Bears' Bobby Joe Green or a kicker like St. Louis' Jim Bakken. A sidebar article spoke of Princeton's Charlie Gogolak, who had a "bizarre" kicking style that was setting Ivy League records: he kicked with the side of his foot, soccer-style.
The increased specialization brought greater expectations for kickers. The days when a team would attempt three or four field goals in a whole season were long gone. Field goal percentages hovered in the low-50s for much of the decade, and teams tended to replace multi-position stars like Green Bay's Paul Hornung with full-time kickers like Chandler. So why were the Giants going the other way?
The team was rebuilding. Stars like Tittle, Gifford, and Sam Huff, who had made the team one of the NFL's best in the 1950s, were gone, and the Giants went 2-10-2 in 1964. Coach Allie Sherman was turning the team over to younger players: rookie RB Tucker Fredrickson, the 22-year-old Wood, Timberlake, and a raw second-year receiver named Homer Jones. A total of 22 players made the 1965 Giants roster who weren't on the team in 1964.
The rebuilding concept made sense, but Sherman hedged his bets in the summer of 1965. Veteran quarterback Earl Morrall was acquired, moving Timberlake to third on the depth chart. Meanwhile, rookie punter Lambert was traded to the Steelers. Stynchula, who had kicked one extra point in his pro career, would start at defensive end and kick extra points and short field goals. Rookie halfback Ernie Koy would handle punts. Timberlake, option quarterback and college superstar, was assigned to kick off and to convert any long field goals.
Sherman's grand experiment seemed to pay off early in the season. The Giants were blown out in their opener, but Stynchula kicked three field goals (all under 25 yards) and an extra point in a 16-14 win at Philadelphia on September 26th. In a nationally televised game on October 3rd at Pittsburgh, Stynchula made 2-of-3 extra points, while Timberlake hit a 43-yard field goal in a 23-13 win.
Timberlake's kick against the Steelers would be the last field goal by any Giants kicker that season.
Early in an October 24th rout at the hands of the Browns, Stynchula twisted an ankle. Timberlake took over as the team's full-time kicker until the season's final week. It was a nightmare. Of his 15 attempts, 12 came from 40 yards away or further. And all three of his shorter attempts were blocked.
One of those blocks came in a 23-7 loss to the Redskins that was closer than the score indicated. The Redskins led 17-7 when the Giants drove to the two-yard line. Tackle Frank Lasky drew a 15-yard personal foul, forcing Timberlake to kick from the 17-yard line. The attempt was blocked. Timberlake had another miss from the 42-yard line (remember that the goal posts were still at the front of the end zone), while Mercerin's attempt from the 37-yard line was blocked.
The missed field goals were all the more frustrating because the Giants were competitive, though they fell out of the playoff chase by early Novermber. The Giants entered the season's final week needing a win over the Cowboys to finish in second place with a winning record, thanks to a fine year by Morrall and the sudden emergence of Homer Jones, who averaged 27 yards per reception and scored six touchdowns.
Stynchula was scheduled to return for that game. But the Cowboys, led by 6-foot-6 Jethro Pugh and 6-foot-7 George Andrie, had blocked seven kicks that season.
The Cowboys struck first, with Don Meredith hitting Bullet Bob Hayes for two long touchdown passes, but Morrall kept pace with two TD passes of his own, and Stynchula made both extra points. With the Cowboys leading 17-14 in the third quarter, a Giants drive stalled at the 42-yard line. Who would be called upon to kick the potential game-tying field goal? Timberlake? Stynchula? Mercerin?
No, no, and no. Linebacker Jerry Hillebrand lined up for the only field goal attempt of his eight-year career.
Sure enough, Cornell Green of the Cowboys blocked the kick. Obert Logan scooped it up and raced 60 yards for a touchdown. The Giants later cut the Cowboys' lead to nine, but Stynchula's extra point was blocked. The Cowboys went on to win 38-20.
It was easy to look at the 7-7 Giants of 1965 and conclude they were a good kicker away from the playoffs. For owner Wellington Mara, it was obvious that Gogolak would be that kicker. No, not Princeton sensation Charley Gogolak, but his brother Pete Gogolak, who helped the Bills win the AFL Championship in 1965. In May of 1966, Mara made Gogolak the highest-paid kicker in football, signing him for $32,000 per year over three years.
There was only one problem: while Gogolak was a free agent, the NFL and AFL had an unspoken agreement about not signing the other league's top stars. Influential execs Tex Schramm of the Cowboys and Lamar Hunt of the Chiefs were busily preparing a secret proposal for a league merger when the Gogolak signing was announced. Suddenly, those plans were scrapped, and while NFL owners fumed at Mara, new AFL commissioner Al Davis prepared for war.
Davis' plan was to isolate one team: the Los Angeles Rams, which were owned by Dan Reeves, a respected elder statesman who gave NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle his first shot in a pro football organization. Davis planned to sign away all of the Rams' top stars, forcing the NFL to act to protect one of its most beloved owners.
In late May, Rams QB Roman Gabriel flew to an Oakland hotel, where he signed a contract with the Raiders for $300,000, as well as an affidavit saying that he wasn't coerced into the deal.
The war between the leagues was beyond Timberlake's purview. He found himself third on the Giants depth chart, behind Morrall and Gary Wood. Morrall was 32 and coming off a fine season, Wood was just 23. Timberlake was in trouble.
Timberlake lamented the fate of the third string quarterback in the Sporting News in September of 1966. "I'm not doing anything," he said. "For four days the other week, I didn't throw a single pass. Not a single pass." And with Gogolak in the fold, Timberlake's services as a kicker, such as they were, were no longer needed.
A crowd of 12,000 fans traveled to Fairfield, Connecticut on July 30, 1966 to watch a Giants intrasquad game. Gogolak's field goals of 48 and 49 yards earned headlines in the 7-6 scrimmage. When asked about Gogolak's kicking by the New York Times, Sherman called it "Refreshing. If you want me to underplay it." Timberlake led the lone touchdown drive of the game, completing passes of 23 and 24 yards. Sherman said that the young passer had "improved," but the Times article noted that he had not played well in camp.
It was the last action Timberlake would see. He didn't play in any of the Giants' five preseason games that year. In late August, he was waived, never to play pro football again.
The war between the leagues was quickly averted. Lamar Hunt and other influential owners kept Davis from leaping into the abyss and possibly plunging both leagues into bankruptcy. Just a few days after Gabriel signed with the Raiders, Rozelle announced the merger that would create the modern NFL.
Pete Gogolak would convert 16-of-28 field goals for the Giants in 1966, but it would do the team little good. Morrall got hurt, the defense fell completely apart, and the team went 1-12-1. He and his brother were the advance guard of the soccer style kicker; in a few decades, straight-on kickers would be essentially extinct.
Stynchula would play three more years at defensive end in the NFL. He would never attempt another kick.
Timberlake would go on to become a hospital administrator in Milwaukee. His name usually comes up in discussions of great Michigan teams or of Ohio natives who opted to play for the Wolverines. His pro career is rarely mentioned.
In fairness to Timberlake, he converted all but one of his extra points ("I'm the guy who put the suspense back in the extra point,â€?"he said after his one miss) and was apparently good on kickoffs. Those contributions were rarely recognized in 1965. Reporters at the time said that Timberlake "rarely played" or "rarely saw the field," when in fact he was the Giants' regular kicker for half the season. In the days before our era of super-specialization, Timberlake's efforts, meager as they were, went overlooked.
The NFL was passing Giants coach Allie Sherman by; in the end, Timberlake was a victim of out-of-date methods. Sherman's teams won two, one, and one game in 1964, 1966, and 1967. The 1965 season was a fluke, but Mara gambled the fate of two leagues on it. Timberlake didn't cost the Giants a playoff spot in 1965, nor did Stynchula or any of the other poor souls who lined up to kick for that year. Sherman and Mara lost it by trading Chandler and not replacing him with a legitimate full-time kicker.
Timberlake's 1-for-15 performance makes him look like a laughingstock. He's better remembered as one of Michigan's great quarterbacks, a Rose Bowl hero who might have had what it took to be a fine pro quarterback or running back. It's a shame he was asked to do what he couldn't.
(Ed. note: For our next Every Stat Tells a Story, we have some questions for somebody with historical interest in either the late-1960's Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Chicago Bears, or Los Angeles Rams. If you think you can help us with our research, please e-mail us at info-at-footballoutsiders.com.)
23 comments, Last at 31 Mar 2010, 3:07pm by charlesdarwin