There have been many quarterbacks throughout the history of the game that have played in both the CFL and the NFL. Some have even been stars in both leagues. The two most obvious would be Warren Moon and Doug Flutie, but Joe Kapp in the sixties also comes to mind. It's worth noting that both Moon and Kapp are both in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Much has been written about Flutie's stellar career. Like Kapp and Moon before him, he's also destined for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame upon his retirement -- though brother Darren may just make it ahead of him. But do you know who the "Doug Flutie of the golden era" of Canadian football was?
Arguably, until Flutie came along, no one -- not even Moon -- had made such an impact in so short a time in his stay in the CFL as Tobin Rote. Unlike Flutie, he never won a Grey Cup, and only stayed three seasons, but in those three seasons, from 1960 to 1962, he was most likely the best QB on the planet. His comparison to Flutie is remarkable; both men were NFL veterans by the time they came north; both virtually rewrote the record book while here; both returned to the States; and, coincidentally, both wound up with the San Diego Chargers.
Born January 18, 1928, in San Antonio, Texas, Tobin Rote attended Harlandale High School, where he was voted "Most Athletic". He played college ball at Houston's Rice University from 1946 through 1949, and was an All-Southwest Conference pick in 1949 after leading the Owls to a 10-1 mark and a 27-13 victory over North Carolina in the 1950 Cotton Bowl. He was picked by the Green Bay Packers in round two of the 1950 draft, but had a dismal rookie season, throwing a league-high 24 interceptions. Facing a challenge from a talented quarterback named Bobby Thomason in 1951, he improved his passing stats, throwing 15 TD's, and also led the team with 523 rushing yards and the league with an average of 6.9 yards per carry.
The Packers took Babe Parilli with their first choice in 1952, and Rote faced another battle for the QB job. He responded with one of the best passing performances of his career while sharing time with the new challenger. When Parilli was drafted into military service before the 1954 season, Rote took over as the Packers' full-time QB. For the next three seasons he would be the star on a series of mediocre Green Bay teams, leading the NFL twice in attempts, completions and TD passes, and once in passing yards. His best year was 1956, when he led the league in all those categories and also ran for 11 TD's. He never missed a game in his seven seasons in Green Bay.
The Packers were a dreadful team back then, though, and in 1957 they handed the starting quarterback job to a young Bart Starr and traded Rote to Detroit, where he figured to serve as a backup to Bobby Layne. But Layne broke his leg during the season, and for the first time Rote found himself leading a team with a chance to win a title. The Lions finished 8-4 that season, with Rote passing for 1,070 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. They tied the San Francisco 49ers for the western title, but fell behind 27-7 in the divisional playoff game. The 49ers led 24-7 at halftime. Through the dressing room walls at San Francisco's old Kezar Stadium, they could hear the 49ers already beginning their celebration.
"We could hear them laughing," Rote said in 1991. "The walls were paper thin. They were going on about how they were going to spend their championship game money. It made us angry."
In the second half, the Lions scored three touchdowns in a little under four and a half minutes, two by little-used fullback Tom "The Bomb" Tracy, and went on to win 31-27. Rote completed 16 of 30 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown while directing one of the NFL's greatest comebacks.
The next Sunday at home in Briggs Stadium, the Lions won their third championship in six years with a 59-14 demolition of the Cleveland Browns. That championship game may have been arguably Rote's finest hour in the NFL. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns, and ran for another in the one-sided affair.
That game marked the end of an era in Detroit; in the off-season, they traded Layne to Pittsburgh, and without their long-time leader, the Lions quickly fell out of contention. Rote played well in 1958, passing effectively and leading his team in rushing for the fourth time in his career (and the last); but he fell apart in 1959, posting his worst stats since 1954. The following off-season, he found himself out of a job.
That year, 1960, Rote signed with the Toronto Argonauts and led them to the Eastern Division title with a 10-4 record - they had been 4-10 in each of the previous four years - and in the process he led the CFL in virtually every passing category. Six times that season he threw for 300+ yards. Three times he threw for five touchdowns or more - twice for seven, equaling the then-CFL record on both occasions. By season's end he'd thrown 38, an Argo, as well as CFL record at the time. Until Flutie came along in fact, only one man - Calgary's Peter Liske - had thrown more; 40 in 1967.
Rote also set the Argo record for most completions in a game that season, with 38 - then the CFL record until Dieter Brock broke it 20 years later! It is still the standard for Argo quarterbacks. Not even Flutie could match it.
The Argos missed out on a trip to the Grey Cup, though, losing 33-21 in Ottawa and 21-20 at CNE Stadium in the two-game-total-point Eastern Final. The Argos fought back bravely, but were felled by a 'sleeper' play in the dying minutes which ensured the Riders' victory. The following year, the league banned the use of the 'sleeper' play.
That year, 1962, the Argos dropped to a 7-6-1 record, primarily due to a pre-season thumb injury that forced Rote out of the entire preseason, and was still troublesome enough that he was unable to start in the regular-season opener. His replacement, a 27-year old rookie named John Henry Jackson started the game, but only played the first quarter. Apparently his nerves got the better of him, and he was ineffectual. Rote had to go in; too early, as it turned out - both in the game, and for the season. Over the next dozen games, the Argos would compile a 5-6-1 record, and were "...wallowing in mediocrity".
And then it happened. The Argo offence switched to a shotgun formation. With Rote passing and Dick Shatto and Cookie Gilchrist running, they won their final two regular season games, finishing 7-6-1, and earned the right to meet the Ottawa Rough Riders in the Eastern Semi-Final. When the dust finally settled on the Eastern playoff game, Rote had thrown four TD passes, and the Argos had taken their revenge 43-19. They would meet the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the two-game-total-point Eastern Final for the right to represent the East in the Grey Cup.
Game One was played on a crisp sunny day in CNE Stadium, and the Argos were "flawless", according to Ti-Cat coach Jim Trimble. They held the Tabbies to a single and an unconverted touchdown, while scoring three majors themselves, and adding a field goal and a single for good measure, to take the first game 25-7. They didn't even need to win Game Two - just not lose by more than 18 points.
But the much-vaunted shotgun formation which had gotten them this far would prove to be their undoing. Rather than utilise a solid running game, which would ultimately provide better ball control, they came out of the gate passing. From the opening kickoff, there was no one in the backfield to run the ball. The Ti-Cats didn't take long to figure out that the Argos were a one-trick pony, and easily broke down the Argo backfield. Amazingly, they were only ahead 3-0 at halftime; the Argos still led by 15 points with 30 minutes to go. By the end of the third quarter, however, that lead had evaporated to one point, as the Tabbies scored two touchdowns to lead 17-0.
Early in the fourth quarter, Don Sutherin kicked a field goal, and the collapse was complete; Hamilton 27, Toronto 25, with the Argos having been outscored 20-0 on the day. But they would collect themselves long enough to kick a 47-yard single with 7_ minutes to play, and another to tie the aggregate score at 27-27.
With just under two minutes remaining, and the Tiger-Cats scrimmaging on their own 25, Ti-Cat QB Bernie Faloney inexplicably decided to throw, rather than run the ball. It was intercepted by Argo DB Stan Wallace. The Argos had the ballon the Hamilton 27-yard line with 91 seconds on the clock. Despite being outscored 20-2, they merely had to kick the ball through the end zone to win the Eastern title.
However, they decided to run the clock down first. Rote ran a quarterback sneak on first down, but it was called back on an offside penalty. On first and fifteen from the 32, Rote called his own number again, gaining three yards. On second and seven, they tried a draw play, losing two yards. Annis Stukus would later write, "The only way a draw could possibly work is if the opposition suspected a pass, and not even Tobin Rote could take a chance on a pass then." With twenty-eight seconds on the clock, they were third and fourteen on the Hamilton 31-yard line. Dave Mann came into the game to kick the winning point. What happened next would forever change the Canadian game.
Normally that would be well within Mann's range - he had almost kicked the ball to the dead-ball line from the 35 earlier. Back then, CFL end zones were 25 yards, and there was no blocking allowed on punt returns. This meant the Tiger-Cats had virtually no chance of running it out of the end zone if the punt fell short, so Trimble sent Sutherin and Faloney - both kickers - deep into the end zone to try to punt the ball back out, given the chance. No one had punted a ball out of an end zone in fifty years!
The snap came back to Mann, and he promptly booted his worst punt of the day, shanking a wobbly 40-yarder. It still came down eight yards inside the end zone, where Sutherin, gathering it up, kicked it back out. It came down just past the 30-yard line, where - incredibly - Mann caught it again, hesitated, then stepped forward and punted it back toward the end zone. This time it landed on the goal line and bounced into the hands of Faloney, who immediately took off with it.
Weaving in and out of would-be Argo tacklers, he gained the first thirty yards, according to Jay Teitel, "...at a leisurely, hypnotic speed, so that as he moved up the field he seemed to be passing the same players twice and even three times. Even when he passed mid-field and there were no Argos left to weave around, he wove. It was one of the strangest runs ever made on a football field."
Faloney ran it back 111 yards to score the winning TD. Or so it seemed. It was called back as the Ti-Cats were flagged for illegal blocking on the return.
But the damage was done. The Argos lost whatever momentum they'd managed to build up, and in the ensuing 30-minute overtime, Hamilton scored four unanswered touchdowns, winning the game 48-2, and the series 55-27.
Rote was the CFL's second-best passer that year, with 220 completions for 3,093 yards and 16 touchdowns, but he faltered in 1962, as did the team's fortunes. The Argos finished dead last with a 4-10 record, and by then end of the season, Rote had become embroiled in a public newspaper feud with former gridiron great Annis Stukus. "Stuke" cited Rote's play selection as the major cause of the Argos' demise, while Rote countered that Stukus - as well as departed Argo coach Lou Agase - didn't seem to know a thing about football!
He led the Argos through the final game of 1962, a 32-8 loss to the lowly Alouettes - themselves not much better - and signed in the off-season with the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League.
The Chargers, after losing the AFL's first two title games to the Houston Oilers, had fallen to 4-10 in 1962. They had a promising young quarterback named John Hadl, but apparently felt he wasn't quite ready yet. They felt Rote would be able to put the Chargers back on top while they waited for the young star to develop.
Rote delivered, leading the AFL in passing, and San Diego rebounded to an 11-3 record and a return trip to the AFL Championship. It was Rote's second chance in the 'Big Game', and again he came through, completing 10 of 15 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns, while running for another. The result was even more one-sided than the 1957 title game: Chargers 51, Patriots 10.
Rote wasn't as effective in 1964, and during the course of the season the 36-year-old veteran gradually turned the QB job over to his protege. The Chargers dipped to 8-5-1, but managed to sneak into the title game again, this time against the Buffalo Bills. Rote got the start and threw a touchdown pass on the Chargers' first possession, but it all went downhill from there. He completed only 10 of 26 passes in a 20-7 Buffalo victory.
Hadl himself completed only three of ten in the same game, but it was clear he was finally ready to take over, and Rote bowed out in the off-season. Though he returned to throw eight passes for Denver in 1966, his career really ended when he left San Diego.
Rote's passing numbers while with the Chargers were impressive enough that he still leads the team in several categories:
|1950||Green Bay Packers||224||83||1,231||37.1||5.5||7||24|
|1951||Green Bay Packers||256||106||1,540||41.4||6.0||15||20|
|1952||Green Bay Packers||157||82||1,268||52.2||8.1||13||8|
|1953||Green Bay Packers||185||72||1,005||38.9||5.4||5||15|
|1954||Green Bay Packers||382||180||2,311||47.1||6.1||14||18|
|1955||Green Bay Packers||342||157||1,977||45.9||5.8||17||19|
|1956||Green Bay Packers||308||146||2,203||47.4||7.1||18||15|
|1963||San Diego Chargers||286||170||2,510||59.4||8.7||20||17|
|1964||San Diego Chargers||163||74||1,156||45.4||7.1||9||15|