Tonight FX debuts American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson. The miniseries claims to tell a story of "The Crime of the Century" that hasn't been seen before. The O.J. Simpson investigation, arrest, and trial was polarizing, riveting and surreal. For the younger generation of football fans who were not old enough or not yet born to understand how big an event it was, the series should help show what a media sensation the whole thing was. For the generations that do, it should be an interesting retell of how a massively popular football player turned analyst and actor became better known as a murder. And for an older generation of Eagles fans, they might remember that Simpson nearly played for the Eagles.
In 1968, Simpson was quickly making his mark as a great college player. In 1967, his first at USC after transferring from City College of San Fransisco, he was the leading collegiate rusher, won the Walter Camp Award and was runner-up for the Heisman as he led the Trojans to the national title. In 1968, he again led the nation in rushing, and also in rushing touchdowns, yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns. His combination of talent, production, and charisma, coupled with playing in Los Angeles, made him a natural star. He was seen as the top pick in the 1969 NFL/AFL draft before his senior season was even halfway complete. The 1968 NFL and AFL seasons would at various points be known as a chase to get OJ, though this one would not have Al Cowlings in a support role.
The Eagles, Steelers, Falcons and Bills all got off to an early "lead", opening the season 0-3. The Falcons were outscored 103-40, the Bills 98-36, and the Steelers 120-37. The Eagles were outscored 109-51 but had committed 11 turnovers through three games after a laughable seven turnovers against the Cowboys in Week 3. The Bills put up an equally terrible -19 passing yards in a Week 2 blowout loss to the Raiders after all three Bills quarterbacks combined for 75 yards passing and 94 yards in sacks.
Over the next three weeks, the chase for OJ thinned. In Week 4 the Bills upset the Jets 37-35 and in Week 5, the Falcons dropped back when they upset the Giants 24-21. The Steelers and Eagles kept on losing. Over the next three weeks the Eagles gave up another 12 turnovers in losses to the Redskins, Cowboys, and Bears, while the Steelers lost to the Browns, Redskins and Saints by a combined 14 points. For Week 7, the tie would be broken: the 0-6 Steelers hosted the 0-6 Eagles on October 27 in what was called "The O.J. Simpson Super Bowl."
Simpson's 64 yard TD run vs UCLA was considered one of the best in college history.
By then, OJ had led the USC Trojans, who started the season ranked 3rd, to the #1 ranking, with defeats against #16 Minnesota, #13 Miami, and #18 Stanford. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers and Eagles put on a display of football that was every bit as bad as USC and Simpson's was great. The Steelers committed 8 penalties for 108 yards, the Eagles committed 12 for 132. The Eagles led at halftime 3-0. But then the Steelers hit their peak. A pair of fourth quarter field goals gave Pittsburgh a 6-3 win, and the next week they defeated the Falcons 41-21 to improve to 2-6. This took the Steelers out of the running, they would finish the season with the fourth overall pick. But the loss kept the Falcons, at 1-7, just a game back of the 0-8 Eagles, who followed up their loss in Pittsburgh with a 45-17 loss at home to the Cardinals. In Buffalo, a Week 6 tie with the Dolphins followed by a pair of blowout losses kept the Bills, who as an AFL team had their season start a week prior to the Eagles and Falcons, a half game behind the Falcons at 1-7-1.
As November progressed, the specter of a winless season looked shaky, yet the prospects for the top pick increased. The Eagles had a pair of close losses, 16-10 to Washington in Week 9, and then a 7-6 loss to the Giants the following week that saw no scoring in the second half. Meanwhile, the Falcons took themselves out of the chase by defeating the Bears 16-13 to get their second win. In the week of November 18th, days after USC improved to 8-0 after wins over #11 California and #13 Oregon State, and the Eagles loss to the Giants put them at 0-10, 25 of 26 scouts polled in a Sports Illustrated article said he was the top pick in the draft and 10 said he was "the best collegiate runner they have ever seen." The Eagles were four games away from the shame of a winless season and the prize of a generational talent.
Week 11 took them one step closer with a 47-13 loss to the Browns. On November 26th, Simpson won the Heisman. On the 27th, Bob Oates of the Los Angeles times reported that he would be the Eagles pick at #1 and that Vince Lombardi, who had stepped down from coaching after the 1967 season, would be offered part ownership and the head coaching job of the Eagles for 1969. The thought of the iconic Lombardi coaching the Eagles and Simpson was extremely tempting.
On November 28th, the Eagles played the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Dubbed "The Mud Bowl", the field was nearly unplayable. The Eagles gained 161 total yards, the Lions 168, almost all on the ground, the teams combined for only 115 passing yards. It seemed the only way to score was to cheat, which the Eagles did. Sam Baker made a field goal in each quarter, and on each kick the team gave him a new, clean ball. As the road team, the Eagles were not allowed to replace game balls, only the home team could change them out. The cheating gave the Eagles a 12-0 win, snapping their losing streak at 11 and put them just a half-game "ahead" of the Bills. Gone was the possibility of the embarrassment of a winless season, but the possibility of Simpson was still alive, though hanging by a thread. Lose the remaining two games and the Eagles would clinch the top pick.
On Saturday, December 7th, the Bills lost their season finale in Houston 35-6, ending the year on a ten game winless streak to finish 1-12-1. On Sunday, December 8th, the Eagles hosted the Saints, who like the Lions the week before, were on a 6 game winless streak. A pair of first half touchdown passes by Norm Snead gave him his first multi-touchdown game of the season, but the Eagles entered halftime down 14-13. The Saints doubled their lead after kicking a field goal then giving up a safety in the 3rd and went into the 4th up 17-15. The Eagles were five quarters away from the unintentional tanking that fans were now completely behind coming to fruition.
Instead, the Eagles blew it. Snead threw a third touchdown pass and Tom Woodeshick ran for another, and the Eagles won 29-17 to improve to 2-11. The top pick was gone. The season finale against the Vikings at home would go down in infamy as the lowest point of Philadelphia fandom.
The game would be Joe Kuharich's last. From the day he was hired, Kuharich was hated in Philly. Kuharick took over the Eagles in 1964 after spending the 1963 season as a supervisor of officials for the NFL, and for the four years prior he was the head coach at Notre Dame. At Notre Dame he had the worst tenure of any coach in the history of the program, never finishing with a winning season, he is the only non-interim head coach in Notre Dame history to have a career losing record while at South Bend. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, he immediately began overhauling the team, with poor results. He traded away stars Sonny Jurgensen, Tommy McDonald and Maxie Baughan, and got back little in return. After a 6-8 debut season in 1964, the Eagles signed him to an unheard of 15-year contract extension. He followed it up with a 5-9 season in 1965. In 1966 he bought himself a reprieve when his three-headed quarterback rotation, which confused even his own players for its needlessness, somehow ended the season on a 7-2 run to finish 9-5. The Eagles followed this relative success up with a 6-7-1 season, and by the time the Eagles were 0-11 in 1968, fans and the media had enough. Buttons worn at games and banners flew on planes over Franklin Field read "Joe Must Go" and Mayor James Tate spoke out about how Kuharich's team was alienating the fanbase and threatening the prospects of the proposed Veterans Stadium. Kuharich also lost the support of nearly all his players. He suspended players for the most minor of negative comments, which gained him no support in or out of the locker room. Mike Ditka, in the second and ultimately final year of his forgotten tenure in Philadelphia, commented at a banquet that the then 0-10 Eagles lacked discipline. He was suspended for a day. Everyone was frustrated with the team and with the coach who assembled and oversaw it.
Tempers reached a boiling point in the season finale. Amidst a snow storm, Eagles fans packed Franklin Field to see out a bitter season on December 15th. At the half, the Eagles and Vikings were tied at 7-7. The team had recently begun an end of season tradition of a Christmas themed halftime show, but as was the 1968 Eagles' wont, that went horribly too. The Santa Claus they had booked was trapped in New Jersey, unable to make it to the game due to the snow. An Eagles staff member spotted a man in an attendance in a Santa costume, a 19 year old named Frank Olivo. He was the best they could get.
Frank Olivo probably should have reconsidered his attire.
When a skinny, young and allegedly drunk Santa came out as the centerpiece to the halftime show, fans had enough. They had enough with Joe Kuharich turning the team into a joke. They had enough with enduring an 11 game losing streak and having next to nothing to show for it. They had enough with six losing seasons in eight years. They booed Santa, and then they threw snowballs at Olivio. It was an embarrassing end to a pitiful season. But the futility didn't end there.
Kuharich was fired after the season, as was Steelers coach Bill Austin, who also went 2-12. The Eagles hired Jerry Williams, a top defensive assistant on the Eagles 1960 title winning team and successful head coach in Canada. The Steelers hired Colts assistant coach Chuck Noll. In the draft, the Eagles had the third pick. After the Bills took Simpson first overall and the Falcons took offensive tackle George Kuntz second, the Eagles selected running back Leroy Keyes, who finished behind Simpson in Heisman voting in both 1967 and 1968 and was so bad as a pro they moved him to defensive back. One pick later the Steelers took Mean Joe Greene. The additions of Noll and Greene were the first steps in the Steelers going from perennial doormat to the dominant team of the 1970s, while the Eagles remained one of the worst teams in the league.
Though the Eagles missed out on Simpson on draft day, they didn't really miss him on the field. Simpson led the league in rushing four times between 1972 and 1976, including becoming the first player to rush for 2000 yards, but the Bills were never able to translate that into success. Buffalo had just three winning seasons and one playoff appearance during Simpson's nine years in Buffalo. Simpson was a great player, but he wasn't the franchise-altering player he was believed to be in 1968.
Instead, he's best known today for his brutal murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, and his conviction for armed robbery in 2007. But in 1994 and 1995, when he was contemplating suicide in the back of his Bronco, when he was trying on blood-stained gloves that no longer fit, he was "former Buffalo Bill" O.J. Simpson. If not for some cheating or a late season fourth quarter comeback, Eagles fans would never had heard people lambast them for throwing snowballs at Santa and one of the most famous and sensationalized murderers in American history would have been "former Philadelphia Eagle" O.J. Simpson.