By Steve Silverman
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Y.A. Tittle helped keep the New York Giants near the top of the NFL heap during the early 1960s.
He came to New York in what turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades in league history, arriving at the perfect time. If he hadn’t, Big Blue almost certainly would have spiraled into mediocrity
Tittle died at the age of 90 on Sunday in Stanford, California.
The Giants of the late 1950s were an elite football team. After winning the NFL title in 1956, they got back to the championship game in ’58 and ’59, losing to the Baltimore Colts both times. The former championship game is often referred to as the greatest game in NFL history, and one that launched professional football into its position as the nation’s most popular sport.
The Giants were an ordinary team in 1960, and they were lucky to go 6-4-2 under head coach Jim Lee Howell. All that got them was a third-place finish in the Eastern Division.
The one thing that new coach Allie Sherman knew when he took over in 1961 was that neither aging Charlie Conerly nor George Shaw was going win games at quarterback.
He needed a new leader and the Giants made a trade with the San Francisco 49ers to get one. Tittle had become available because the 49ers had installed a shotgun offense, and head coach Red Hickey thought that John Brodie was much better-suited for that attack than the older Tittle.
Tittle was insulted and angry that Hickey took his job away from him and handed it to Brodie, and he was not pleased at the idea of becoming a backup.
But the Giants made a bold move by trading for the 35-year-old. Instead of giving up an equal star for a four-time Pro Bowler, they parted with guard Lou Cordileone, a second-year player from Clemson who had been a first-round selection in 1960.
In those days, scouting and drafting players was nowhere near the science it is today. It often consisted of a front office assistant reading Street and Smith’s college football preview magazine and getting the names of the top players. A scouting report consisted of a phone call to that player’s coach, who would either give his blessing or say thumbs down on the player in question.
That was how the system worked for many years, so the Giants knew that Cordileone was a solid-looking player, but he was not a star. He expressed shock when he learned he was traded for Tittle in a one-for-one deal.
Tittle was a motivated player who was out to prove himself to Sherman, and he was also intent on showing Hickey that he was still a winning quarterback.
Tittle went on to become a monster for the Giants, leading the team to the Eastern Division title three years in a row. Tittle delivered spectacular passing numbers in 1961, ’62 and ’63.
He was 8-1-1 as a starter in ’61, and threw for 2,272 yards with 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He led the Giants to the NFL championship game against Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers.
That game did not go well, as the Packers ran roughshod over the Giants by a 37-0 margin.
Tittle, however, was undaunted and came back stronger in ’62, as the Giants dominated the East with a 12-2 record. Tittle threw for 3,224 yards with 33 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He led the league in TD passes, and the Giants were known for their high-powered offense that featured star receiver Del Shofner, along with running back Frank Gifford and fullback Alex Webster.
While the Giants would lose the title game to the Packers once again, the final score was much closer, 16-7.
Tittle’s performance as a 37-year-old in 1963 was the finest of his career. He led the league in completion percentage (60.2) and touchdowns (36).
Once again, the Giants made it to the title game, but this time got something of a break in that they did not have to face Lombardi’s Packers. Instead, they took on George Halas and the Chicago Bears. The Giants fell short by a 14-10 margin at brutally cold Wrigley Field. Tittle threw a TD pass to Gifford in the first quarter, but the Giants could not get back into the end zone.
Tittle knew the clock was ticking on his career, and he suffered the cruelest blow in 1964 when he was pummeled by Pittsburgh Steeler defensive end John Baker while throwing an interception. When Tittle was able to regain his feet, he was beaten and bleeding from his bald head.
The image was captured in a famous picture, and Tittle’s career came to an end at the conclusion of the season.
He was fully recognized for what he had done during his 17-year career with the Baltimore Colts of the All-America Football Conference, the 49ers and the Giants with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
He was among the best quarterbacks in the game, and his peers included Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr.
He helped keep the Giants near the top of the league, though they would go into a brutal depression that would last until they finally returned to the playoffs in 1981.
By that time, Tittle was just a name in the record books, but he was clearly one of the greatest players in team history.
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