State Your Case: Chuck Howley
The only player from a losing team ever selected a Super Bowl MVP
(Published September 2016)
Tom Landry was one of the great defensive minds in NFL history.
Vince Lombardi ran the offense and Landry the defense of the 1950s New York Giants – a team that went to three NFL title games and won a championship. Then Landry built one of the iconic defenses in NFL history – the Doomsday — in Dallas in the 1970s.
Landry played, coached and knew defense from a 40-year NFL career. So he was a voice of authority on that side of the ball.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody better at linebacker than Chuck Howley,” Landry said.
His word is good enough for me. But, obviously, not for the Hall-of-Fame selection committee. Howley has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for 38 years now but has never once been discussed as a finalist. His candidacy now resides in the senior pool – and it’s a candidacy that demands greater scrutiny from the committee.
Howley was a heralded player coming out of college at West Virginia, becoming the seventh overall pick of the 1958 draft by the Chicago Bears. He played on the College All-Star team that defeated the NFL-champion Detroit Lions, then intercepted a pass on an 8-4 Chicago team as a rookie.
But Howley tore up his knee in September of the following season. So severe was the injury that it was considered a career-ender, so Howley retired and sat out the 1960 season.
But the expansion Cowboys, winless in their first season in 1960, were desperate for talented players, and Landry, in particular, needed talented defenders. So Dallas traded a second-round draft pick to Chicago for Howley in 1961. He became a walk-in starter and stayed there for the next 12 seasons.
Howley began his career as the strongside backer and went to four Pro Bowls there for the Cowboys in the 1960s. He moved over to the weakside in 1969 and wound up going to two more Pro Bowls over there. He was a playmaker wherever Landry lined him up.
Howley intercepted six passes as a strongside backer in 1968 and five as a weakside backer in 1971. He chipped in a career-best 5-½ sacks in the Dallas flex defense in 1969 and three fumble recoveries in 1970. He returned a fumble 97 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta in 1966 and interceptions of 28 yards against Cleveland in 1967 and 35 yards against Detroit in 1968 for a couple more scores.
But Howley was at his best in the biggest games. In the first Super Bowl appearance by the Cowboys in 1971, he made four tackles and intercepted two passes, one off Johnny Unitas and the other off Earl Morrall, for game MVP honors — in a losing cause. The Colts prevailed, 16-13, on a late field goal.
There have now been 56 Super Bowls, and Howley remains the only player from a losing team selected as the MVP.
The Cowboys returned to the Super Bowl the following year, and this time Howley contributed two more takeaways — an interception of Hall-of-Famer Bob Griese and a fumble recovery of Hall-of-Famer Larry Csonka — in a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins. His two takeaways gave the Dallas offense short fields and paved the way for 10 points.
Howley also returned a fumble 44 yards for a touchdown against Cleveland in the 1968 NFC title game and intercepted a pass against Minnesota in the NFC semifinals in 1971.
Athletic and fast, Howley could blitz and cover, which gave him the ability to make plays on both sides of the line of scrimmage. He collected 43 career takeaways, intercepting 25 passes and recovering 18 fumbles, and had 26-½ sacks. Among NFL outside linebackers, only Hall-of-Famer Jack Ham has been credited with more career takeaways (52).
“He was one of the first linebackers to play bigger than his size,” said Rams Hall-of-Famer Jack Youngblood. “He played above his natural ability.”
Landry saw something special in Howley. It’s puzzling how the Hall-of-Fame selection committee has missed it.