Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
31 May 2007
by Mike Tanier
(EVERY STAT TELLS A STORY is our 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. If you would like to recommend a weird stat or good story for this feature, please contact Mike Tanier through our contact form.)
Falcons fans and trivia experts know the story of Dave Hampton: he's the Falcons running back who reached 1,000 yards in the last game of the season in 1972, was tripped for a loss on the next play, and finished the year with 995 yards. Real trivia buffs know that he was stopped just short of 1,000 again in 1973, then finally reached the mark for the only time in his career in 1975.
The facts of Hampton's hard-luck career are strange, but the details are even stranger. Hampton's battle with the 1,000-yard barrier took him from the Packers bench to near-stardom in Atlanta, put him at ground zero for one of the ugliest coaching meltdowns in pro sports history, and forced him to live through one of the worst seasons an NFL team ever had.
Hampton was never considered an elite prospect. He played on the University of Wyoming's undefeated 1967 squad, but he backed up Jim Kiick, who would go on to play for a more famous undefeated NFL team. Hampton stepped into Kiick's starting job as a senior, earned All-Conference notice, but wasn't drafted until the Packers selected him in the ninth round of the 1969 draft.
Hampton began to earn his reputation as a snakebit player a year later. He returned a kickoff 101 yards against the Vikings in 1970, only to collapse in pain at the end of the play. He needed stomach surgery and would miss the next two months of the season. He bounced back in 1971 to return kickoffs for a total of 1,314 yards, which at the time was just three yards short of the NFL record.
Hampton's return skills caught the attention of Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin. The Falcons had been in existence for seven years but had never produced a consistent return man. Van Brocklin traded a veteran tackle to the Packers to obtain Hampton. Hampton was acquired primarily as a kick returner; veteran Jim "Cannonball" Butler, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, was entrenched as the starting running back, and former first-round pick Joe Profit was coming back from knee surgery.
Circumstances changed during training camp in 1972. Profit started some exhibition games, and while he got mixed reviews, his performance encouraged Van Brocklin to deal Butler for defensive lineman Chuck Walker. Profit would start; Hampton, who longed to start in Green Bay but didn't fit the team's power back philosophy, was second on the depth chart.
Once the season started, it became clear that Profit couldn't get the job done. He gained only 30 yards in his first two games. Hampton replaced Profit in the opener against the Bears and gained 49 yards. He relieved Profit in Week 2 against the Patriots and gained 97 yards. By Week 3, he was the starter, and it would prove to be a tough test. The Falcons were playing the Rams, a team with one of the NFL's most formidable defenses. In seven seasons of division play, the Falcons had never beaten the Rams.
Hampton rose to the challenge. He rushed for a team-record 161 yards. He scored two touchdowns, including a 56-yard off-tackle run. Fullback Art Malone added 103 yards, marking the 20th time in NFL history that two players rushed for 100 yards in one game. The Falcons crushed the Rams, and Hampton earned Player of the Week honors.
Hampton was a player on the rise, and the Falcons were suddenly potential contenders. Hampton earned some revenge against his former team by rushing for 93 yards in a 10-9 win over the Packers. The Falcons lost their rematch against the Rams, but Hampton rushed for 78 yards and scored a touchdown. He rushed for just 60 yards in a blowout win over the Saints, but he contributed with a 16-yard touchdown run and 46 receiving yards. When Malone fumbled twice in a loss to the Redskins, Hampton earned even more carries. He carried 25 times for 88 yards and two scores in a win over the Oilers.
As the year progressed, the Falcons fell out of the wild card picture. There was only one wild card team per conference that year, and by late in the year the Redskins and Cowboys were far ahead of the pack (the Cowboys would prevail). But the Falcons still had milestones to shoot for as they entered the season finale against the Chiefs. The team was gunning for its first-ever winning record, and Hampton was just 70 yards short of 1,000.
What happened in front of 58,000 Falcons fans in that final game was stranger than fiction. Hampton reached 1,000 yards on a short run early in the fourth quarter. The game was stopped so the Falcons could honor their first-ever 1,000 yard rusher. Soon after, Hampton was tripped up in the backfield on a sweep, losing five yards. He would never get those five yards back. The Chiefs got the ball back and drove 81 yards, eating up the clock before scoring a touchdown that gave them a 17-14 lead with 2:19 remaining. Hampton finished the season with 995 yards; the Falcons finished 7-7.
Hampton's torturous battle with the 1,000-yard barrier was just beginning.
The Falcons entered the 1973 season with a new quarterback (Dick Shiner) and a new sense of confidence. Hampton and Malone had proven themselves as a formidable 1-2 punch. The defense, led by linebacker Tommy Nobis and defensive end Claude Humphrey, was solid. The new franchise smell was wearing off. Van Brocklin's team started the season with a bang, beating the Saints 62-7. Hampton rushed for 107 yards in the game.
That bang became a whimper quickly as the Falcons were outscored 75-15 in three straight losses. Hampton gained 172 yards in the three games. Despite some awful performances by the offense, Van Brocklin stayed with Shiner at quarterback until he was hurt early in a Week 5 game against the Bears.
Veteran Bob Lee replaced Shiner, and the Falcons beat the Bears 46-6, embarking on a seven-game winning streak. Hampton gained 90 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the drubbing of the Bears, then 76 more yards and two more scores in a 41-0 rout of the Chargers. After gaining exactly 100 yards in a win over the Niners, Hampton reached the halfway point of the season third in the NFC with 536 rushing yards.
If you've been reading Hampton's stat lines carefully so far, you've noticed a trend. Hampton rarely cracked the century mark yards in games, even lopsided wins. He consistently gained about 75 yards per game. Malone still got a share of the carries, as did fullback Eddie Ray, whose role in the offense increased in 1973. Two-back systems were the norm in the mid-1970s, and Hampton's teammates were effective interior runners. Hampton was on pace to reach 1,000 yards, but at 75 yards per game, he was on track to nudge the barrier, not smash through it.
Hampton began to struggle, putting up stat lines like his 21-carry, 53-yard effort in a rout of the Eagles in Week 9. A 108-yard effort against the Vikings kept him among the conference leaders, but by the final week of the season he had 913 rushing yards, meaning he needed a big game against the Saints to reach 1,000.
The Falcons led 14-10 entering the fourth quarter, and they were determined to both hold the lead (the team had slim wild card chances) and get Hampton to the magic mark. Hampton was given 16 carries in the final quarter as the Falcons nursed their slim lead, but those carries weren't enough. Hampton finished the game with 27 carries and 84 yards, giving him 997 for the season. It was the best season the Falcons ever had, but they missed the playoffs despite beating the Saints, and they still didn't have a 1,000 yard rusher.
There was cause for optimism in 1974, but instead of building on their success in 1973, the Falcons embarked on one of the most miserable seasons a team has ever had.
On paper, the 1974 Falcons started the season with personnel to rival the division-powerhouse Rams. The Sporting News expected them to compete for the NFC West title. But there was trouble brewing. The 1974 off-season was a tumultuous one for the NFL. The rival World Football League signed several star players. The Players Association called a July strike. A Falcons team representative was called off the picket line after one week and told by Van Brocklin: "You and your sign have been traded to New Orleans."
Maybe it was that incident, maybe it was Van Brocklin's stern demeanor, but when the players returned to work in August, Van Brocklin had lost his Falcons. They were beaten 24-0 by the Cowboys in the season opener. After a 16-10 loss to the Niners the following week, team owner Rankin Smith suggested that Van Brocklin's job was in jeopardy.
Things deteriorated quickly. Van Brocklin kept juggling Lee with younger Pat Sullivan, but neither quarterback was effective. The blocking, despite quality linemen like Jeff Van Note and George Kunz, was awful. The defense held up to provide two wins in October, but the Falcons suffered the ultimate embarrassment soon after: a sweep at the hands of the Saints. "All the trouble started with the strike," Van Brocklin said in an obscenity-laced interview after losing 13-3 to the Saints at home. "It was an all-time low."
Unfortunately, it wasn't. Two weeks later, an angry Van Brocklin would shove a cameraman out of a hotel elevator. After the Falcons lost 42-7 to the Dolphins that week, a reporter asked Van Brocklin, who often said he was too much of a fighter to give up on his team, if he was "still a fighter."
"Get out of that chair and try me if you don't think I'm a fighter," he said. "I mean it. If anyone wants to try me, we'll stack furniture."
Van Brocklin was fired later in the week after a hostile meeting with owner Smith. Defensive coordinator Marion Campbell took over. The defense was still playing well, but the offense was now completely rudderless.
What about Hampton? He was injured early in the year, then came back to a team that had no passing game and plenty of residual bitterness from the Van Brocklin regime and the players strike. The Falcons scored just 111 points in 1974, a modern low that would later be surpassed by the 1977 Buccaneers. They never scored more than 17 points in a game. They were shut out three times and scored just 34 points in six games under Campbell. Their quarterbacks threw four touchdown passes and 31 interceptions while enduring 50 sacks.
Under the circumstances, Hampton could do little more than post four-carry, nine-yard stat lines, as he did in a 30-7 loss to the Rams. Hampton had better games than that, and he led the Falcons in rushing with 464 yards, but he was frequently out of the game plan by the second half as the Falcons endured loss after humiliating loss. The Falcons beat the Packers in the season finale, but just over 10,000 fans showed up for the game.
Labor unrest was still rampant in 1975, but the World League was already on the wane and the bitterness of Van Brocklin's exit faded in Atlanta. The team traded to move up in the draft and select quarterback Steve Bartkowski with the first overall pick. Sullivan and the criminally inept Kim McQuilken were still in the picture, but Bartkowski would quickly establish himself as the starter, bringing a measure of respectability back to the offense. Fellow rookie Alfred Jenkins and new arrival Wallace Francis gave Bartkowski two viable deep receivers.
Things were looking up for Hampton as well. Ray and Malone were gone. While new fullback Haskel Stanback got his share of the carries, Hampton became more of a modern featured back. And Bartkowski's arm kept opponents from stacking the box.
Hampton felt the benefits right away, rushing 23 times for 135 yards in a season-opening loss to the Cardinals. He added 86 yards the next week against the Lions, though Campbell made a controversial decision to pull Hampton late in the game with the Falcons nursing a three-point lead. "Dave carried the ball 21 times and needed the rest" Campbell reasoned, but the Falcons managed just 17 yards in their final four offensive series without Hampton, and the Lions came back to win.
Campbell's odd decisions and Bartkowski's elbow injuries soon slowed the Falcons offense, and a familiar pattern of 23-7 losses and 63-yard games by Hampton returned. But Hampton and the Falcons rebounded late in the year when their rookie quarterback returned to the lineup. Hampton gained 106 yards in a 35-21 win for the Broncos, and while the Falcons were cruising to another losing season, the football media was pulling for Hampton. "In the misery of a season ruined by injury to their quarterback, the Falcons should pull themselves together and try to win the rushing title for their ace, Dave Hampton," the Sporting News reported that November. "He's worth it, and they could."
After a 106-yard effort in a loss to the Raiders, Hampton was in the thick of the race for a rushing title. He added 62 yards against the Redskins. With 81 yards in a rout of the Bills, Hampton had 941 rushing yards with one game to play: against the Packers, the team that wouldn't give him a starting job four years earlier. â€œYou know I'll be juiced,â€? Hampton said of his latest tilt at the 1,000-yard dragon.
The Packers opened the game with a field goal, but Hampton answered with a seven-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The Packers followed with 19 unanswered points, and Hampton's opportunities to carry the ball dwindled as the Falcons switched to catch-up mode. At the two-minute warning, Hampton was 24 yards shy of 1,000.
Down by nine and with little hope of scoring twice in two minutes, Campbell started giving the ball to Hampton. On 2nd-and-6, Hampton ran off right tackle for 22 yards. On the next play, he gained four more yards. That gave him 1,002 for the season. There would be no repeat of 1972; Hampton was quickly removed from the game.
Jim Otis would lead the NFC in rushing with 1,078 yards, but Hampton finally reached his goal.
That fateful game against the Packers was the beginning of the end for Hampton. In the next draft, the Falcons selected running back Bubba Bean in the first round. The rookie quickly beat out Hampton, now 29 and battered by four tough seasons as a starter. The Falcons quietly sent their all-team leading rusher to the Eagles at midseason. Hampton was mediocre for a bad Eagles team, and new coach Dick Vermeil preferred to use fullback Mike Hogan and halfback Tom Sullivan as his runners. A year later, the team would draft another undersized kick returner and halfback named Wilbert Montgomery. Hampton was out of football by the end of the 1976 season.
Before long, the Falcons rose to playoff prominence behind Bartkowski and another talented running back: William Andrews. Andrews would be followed by a string of quality rushers, from Gerald Riggs to Jamal Anderson to Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. Hampton's legacy quietly faded, his rushing total sliding gradually down the Falcons' all-time list.
Hampton's story ends with a strange, sad coda. In 1985, he was sentenced to five years' probation and 300 hours of community service for real estate fraud. Hampton forged paperwork to borrow more money than his $95,000 home was worth. "I sentenced you to community service instead of a fine for two reasons," DeKalb Superior Court Judge Daniel M. Coursey Jr. told Hampton. "First, you're already obligated for $43,000, a substantial sum of money. Second, with your background, I think you might be able to do some good in the community with youth."
How good a back was he? Hampton only had a handful of 100-yard games in his career. The prevailing strategies of the era forced him to split carries with players like Malone and Stanback, but great backs posted far better numbers in two-back systems. His yards-per-carry averages aren't great. Still, had he managed three 1,000-yard seasons, he might have been remembered with the good second-tier runners of the 1970s like Lawrence McCutcheon.
Instead, he's a trivia question. When pouring through names in an encyclopedia, four-digit numbers stand out, three-digit numbers don't. A few yards can change a player's legacy. Hampton had those yards but lost them. That's better than never having gained them at all.
Addendum: The top running back seasons in Atlanta Falcons history, according to the essay "The Greatest Running Back Seasons of All Time" in Pro Football Prospectus 2007:
1) William Andrews, 1983 (13th overall all-time)
2) William Andrews, 1982
3) Gerald Riggs, 1985
4) William Andrews, 1980
5) Jamal Anderson, 1998
6) Craig Heyward, 1995
7) Jamal Anderson, 1996
8) Warrick Dunn, 2005
9) Cannonball Butler, 1969
10) Gerald Riggs, 1984
19) Dave Hampton, 1973
37) Dave Hampton, 1975
40) Dave Hampton, 1972
45) Dave Hampton, 1974
38 comments, Last at 23 Jun 2007, 11:34am by Dennyworld