Hayes’ speed influenced offensive play-calling

CANTON, Ohio – Former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt hasn’t eaten chitlings in 45 years. But his willingness to devour pig intestines, along with plenty of helpings of mustard greens and collard greens, may have helped change the NFL.

Back when wide receiver Bob Hayes, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, was drafted in the winter of 1964, getting a player wasn’t as simple as selecting him and then signing him to a contract. With the NFL doing battle with the AFL for players, part of getting a player included a fair amount of recruiting.

Brandt’s duty in getting Hayes to join Dallas was to persuade Hayes’ family that the Cowboys, who to that point had yet to have a winning season, were the team for their son.

“Bob’s mom owned a restaurant in Jacksonville,” Brandt remembered Saturday. “It was all soul food: chitlings, collard greens, mustard greens. Here I am, going there three times and I have to do anything I can to eat it. I don’t want to insult his mom in her own restaurant.”

Brandt washed down every helping with a Pepsi, so voraciously that Hayes mother once said to Brandt, “You sure do love those chitlings, don’t you?” Brandt just smiled and said, “Oh yeah, give me another Pepsi.”

Since then, the NFL has spent 45 years looking for more guys like Hayes, a man who changed the very foundation of how the league thought. Hayes’ world-class speed – he won the gold medal and tied the world record in the 100 at the 1964 Olympics – helped push the NFL into the passing era and turned the Cowboys into one of the league’s most dominant franchises.

“Bob Hayes is part of the evolution of the NFL,” said former Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, who was drafted in the same class with Hayes and fellow Hall of Famer Mel Renfro. “Bob had speed and he also had a football sense about him.”

Hayes’ stats (371 catches, 7,414 yards and 71 touchdowns) during an 11-year career seem paltry by modern standards and were part of the reason Hayes had to wait so long to be inducted. However, the ideas he created for coaches and the fear he caused in defenses eventually led the NFL to open up the rules to create more offense after Hayes left the game.

“You had to choose with Bob and it was never a good choice,” Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown said. “You either had to play way off him or you had to attack him. We eventually would just attack him because you had to bump him around early. If you didn’t, there was no way you were going to catch him.”

The rules of the NFL at the time allowed defenders to hit receivers anywhere down field until the ball was in the air. As a result, getting open was far more difficult and pass patterns were limited. What Hayes did was create open room for receivers to run. His reception average, just below 20 yards per catch, was a testimony to his explosiveness.

When defenses would show too much respect for Hayes’ speed, Dallas coach Tom Landry created the receiver screen, a play that has become a staple for NFL offenses.

“I hate to say that people invented certain things in the NFL because so much of the NFL is a copy of something else,” Brandt said. “But that play is something Landry came up with just because of Bob Hayes. The defense would play way off Bob. The quarterback would take two steps back, fire it out there, and the guard and the tackle would pull out and just start blocking downfield.”

In the years after Dallas’ successful experiment with Hayes, who died in 2002 at age 59, other teams tried the same idea. In 1968, Miami used a second-round pick on Olympic champion and 100m record-holder Jim Hines.

Problem was, Hines couldn’t catch.

“They nicknamed him, ‘Oops,’ ” Brandt said. “Because they’d throw him 10 and he’d drop nine and every time he dropped one, he’d say, ‘Oops.’ ”

Hines was also slightly built, a skinny man who possessed more grace than brute force. By contrast, Hayes was built along the lines of a football player.

“Big thighs, a strong upper body,” Brandt said. “He was a strong guy who could handle what football was about.”

That strength helped turn the Cowboys from a struggling expansion team to a juggernaut. Dallas’ first six seasons from 1960-65 all ended in losing records. In 1966, the Cowboys started 4-0, then saw the season teeter as they reached 4-2-1 and were losing 30-24 at Washington in the fourth quarter.

Facing third down from its own 5-yard line, Hayes caught a deep pass from Don Meredith and turned it into a 95-yard touchdown.

“That was the biggest play we had to that point,” Brandt said. “We won that game and took off from there.”

Dallas finished that season 10-3-1 before losing in the NFL title game to Green Bay. That started a run of 20 consecutive winning seasons, including 18 playoff appearances, five Super Bowl appearances and two championships.

Hayes was there for the first nine of those seasons, helping the Cowboys to two of those Super Bowls and one of the titles.

In Hayes’ aftermath, the NFL changed the rules to help the passing game. In 1978, the bump rule was changed and the rules have progressively changed ever since to maintain Hayes’ impact.

In all, it was worth every meal Brandt had to swallow.

“Three times,” Brandt said, breaking out a sly grin. “But never again after that.”

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Aug 9, 2009