Saturday, 29 July 2017

BOSTON'S OTHER BABE: BABE PARILLI, THE QUARTERBACK'S LIFE


Looking at the life of Babe Parilli, who died recently, was more compelling than I'd thought it would be, for not only was Parilli probably the first star the Boston Patriots ever had, and one of the biggest names in the early years of the AFL. Parilli was known as a leader, an erratic but strong-armed quarterback not afraid to take chances, and was a decent runner, especially in his early years. He was also good looking and known to enjoy a good time. Babe was in many ways a poster boy for the life of NFL quarterbacks in the 1950s, and of those retreads and journeymen who populated the position in the early years of the AFL as well.

The Babe was, until Tom Brady's 2007 season, still the Pats' record holder for TD passes in a season; Brady had broken his yardage mark in 2002. Parilli's 1964 season was one of the biggest of any AFL season, 3.465 yards and 31 touchdowns. The shortlist of great Patriots' quarterbacks is very short indeed. Steve Grogan is the gridiron embodiment of the franchise for its first four decades, gritty, tough, trying hard but not talented enough. Tony Eason, Drew Bledsoe and Parilli each led the Pats to one championship game, and each lost that one. Bledsoe's probably the number two, and I'd be tempted to list the Babe at number three; they were in some ways pretty similar: pocket passers with big arms who trusted their arms maybe more than they should. Pats fans tend to put Grogan up there, and ignore Eason who was basically a two-year wonder, with a bad year in between. Which, as it happens, was very much the Parilli pattern.

Vito Parilli was born May 7, 1930, in Rochester Pennsylvania; the fertile area which produced so many great quarterbacks: Johnny Lujack, John Unitas, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, etc. He was recruited by Bear Bryant to play at Kentucky, where he followed George Blanda. Parilli ran Bear Bryant's T-formation perfectly, where ball-handling was his first responsibility; he got the nickname 'Houdini Hands'. His second  responsibility may have been running, but he was a good passer and probably the best QB in the SEC following the time Billy Wade played tailback at Vanderbilt. He told the story of playing with an injured arm against LSU; Bryant put him what amounted to a shotgun formation, he was never touched, and the Wildcats won the game. He took Kentucky to wins in the '51 Sugar Bowl over undefeated Oklahoma and in the '52 Cotton Bowl over TCU. Those wins probably put Bryant on the watchlist for SWC teams; after the '53 season he would be hired by Texas A&M.

The Packers drafted Parilli with their first pick in the 1952 draft, which was odd since they had drafted Tobin Rote of Rice with their second pick in 1950. Rote was a good but erratic passer, and a tremendous runner. Parilli and Rote shared the job in '52 and combined for 26 TD passes (Babe 13/17 Rote 13/8) which should have augered well for the future. Don't forget, in these days defenders could contact a receiver from the line of scrimmage until the pass was actually in the air; completions were a lot harder to come by. But in '53 Babe slid to 4 TDs and 19 picks; Rote played along with 5/15, meaning they combined for 34 picks with only 9 scores.

The New York Times said Rote played in Canada in 54-55, but he was actually in the Air Force, and when he left the Packers traded him to Cleveland in a package for QB Bobby Garrett of Stanford, whom the Browns has drafted first overall in the '54 draft. Garrett, it turned out, stuttered. Scouting wasn't what it is today, and Paul Brown found this too much. Garrett never started a game, played in a few for the Packers, and was out of the league. Paul Brown got Parilli because he was looking ahead to when Otto Graham retired, although Graham's backup, George Ratterman played well the next two years (in '55 Brown had to lure Graham back with a huge $25,000 deal). With Graham gone in '56, Ratterman took over, and in the fourth game suffered a knee injury that ended his career. Parilli took over, got four starts, and then was injured himself. Tommy O'Connell played the rest of the year as the Browns finished the year 5-7, their first-ever losing season.

This was life in the NFL in the Fifties. Although Parilli had loved Bear Bryant he didn't really get along with the cutting and sarcastic Paul Brown, so in 1957 Brown traded him. Back to Green Bay. It was 10 player deal that some say included the rights to Bobby Garrett. This kind of stuff happened all the time. George Blanda hated Bears' owner/coach George Halas with a passion, and Halas, whose evaluation and use of quarterbacks was always suspect (he ruined Johnny Lujack, dumped Bobby Layne, and dumped on Blanda, all of whom he had at the same time in the Forties behind Sid Luckman). Anyway, Blanda once traded Blanda to the Colts, to Blanda's delight, then bought him back a week later.

The Packers had picked up Parilli intending to trade him on, so instead they traded Tobin Rote to the Lions. Bobby Layne got hurt that year, and Rote stepped in to lead Detroit to an NFL title. Coach George Wilson decided he didn't like Layne, and the next year he traded him to Pittsburgh, where the Steelers turned into winners while Rote turned into a pumpkin, turning in 5TD 19 int passer rating 29.8 season. In 1960 Rote was playing in Toronto, where he threw 38 TD passes and led the Argos to a divisional title (actually, the championship of the Inter-Provincial Rugby Football Union).

Parilli mentored and relieved Bart Starr, a 16th round draft pick, and actually won the first game at Lambeau Field, then called City Stadium. But when Vince Lombardi arrived, Parilli was gone. Babe said it was because he'd beaten Lombardi at golf, and Vince didn't want to pay him the one dollar bet. He claimed Lombardi told him “that will be the last dollar you ever get from me.” He landed with Ottawa in the CFL, but played behind the great Canadian QB Russ Jackson and the veteran Frank Tripucka. Tripucka's another one of those crazy Fifties stories. He was drafted in the first round by the Eagles in 1949: then traded to Detroit in mid-season without having played a down. You wonder if they scouted him or just figured that a star QB at Notre Dame was worth a first-round pick. The Lions sent him to the hapless Chicago Cardinals, who traded him to the even more hapless Dallas Texans. Tripucka saw the light and bolted for Saskatchewan, where he played for Frank Filchock and, apparently, was making a lot more money than he ever got in the NFL.

But in 1960 the American Football League was launched, and they needed quarterbacks. Tripucka had retired and was assistant coach to Filchock in Denver. After a couple of practices, they realised he was much better than the guys they had, so he became the starter. Parilli signed with Oakland, where he shared the job with the starter Tom Flores, a local product of College of the Pacific who'd been cut by the CFL the year before. George Blanda was signed by Houston and led them to the championship, beating Jack Kemp and the Los Angeles Chargers in the final. Tommy O'Connell resurfaced as the starter in Buffalo, and got injured in the first quarter of the first game against the New York Titans, whose starter Dick Jamieson was benched in the first quarter for Al Dorow.

In 1961 Oakland traded Parilli to the Boston Patriots, whose QB in 1960 had been Butch Songin. Songin, a hockey and football star at Boston College, who had last played football in 1954, for Hamilton in the CFL. That's the kind of league it was. They split time in '61, but in '62 Parilli took over and had what may have been the most efficient season of his career. Completing 55.3% of his passes, 18 touchdowns and only 8 picks, and a passer rating of 91.5, which is probably the equivalent of something at least ten points higher today. The next year Babe regressed to 13 scores and 24 picks, but the Patriots went all the way to the AFL championship game, where the Chargers destroyed them 51-10, with Keith Lincoln having a game for the ages. The Chargers, whose coach Sid Gillman supposed spied on the Pats to get their game plan, were quarterbacked by, wait for it, Tobin Rote, whom Gillman had signed because he'd lost Kemp and thought John Hadl wasn't yet ready. Rote had suffered his usual reversion to below the norm in Toronto, and been released after the '62 season.

Parilli had that big year in '65, then two more typical Parilli years. In 1968 the Pats traded him to the Jets for Mike Taliaferro, who had lost his job to Joe Namath. Namath was from Beaver Falls, Pa, about five miles away from Rochester, and the first quarterback he idolized growing up was Babe Parilli. Parilli was a perfect backup for the Jets; under Weeb Ewbank he was consistent when he had to play. He did the holding so Namath didn't have to risk injury, and the New York press made as much of his ball handling as Jim Turner's holder as the football writers had made of his ball-handling at Kentucky. When the Jets won Super Bowl III, Parilli got his championship ring at last, and as an AFL original, and as a typical gypsy QB of the NFL's Fifties, he deserved it.

After the 1969 season, Babe retired. He was a quarterbacks coach for the hometown Steelers, mentoring Terry Bradshaw (whose first few seasons' stats could be mistake for a Parilli years). He then  coached in the World Football League, and later for many teams in the Arena League, which was the kind of game made for the Babe Parillis and Tobin Rotes of the 50s NFL. He retired to Colorado, where he died July 15th. RIP. 


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