“Here’s a special center in now,” Curt Gowdy said as the camera zoomed in on #58. “He only does one thing: snaps the ball back on punts. George Burman.”
No NFL announcer would explain a long snapper in a broadcast in 2020. No college or even high school announcer would either. But on January 14, 1973, the concept remained foreign enough that Gowdy thought to do NBC’s viewers a service.
Not the concept of long snapping, of course. This man George Burman, this “special center,” was not the first player to snap the ball deep on punts; punting had been part of football since before the founding of the NFL. What Gowdy was explaining was the concept of the specialist long snapper, something that wouldn’t be common in the NFL for another 25 years or so.
George Burman was 30 years old in Super Bowl VII, playing in the final NFL game of his nine-year pro career. And even though his play on the offensive line was versatile and dependable, he would not have remained in the league nine years but for another skill, one that gives him an under-discussed place in NFL history. George Burman was the league’s first specialist long snapper.
“In my mind, I was an offensive lineman who did the long snapping, but also in my mind, the length of my career was my recognition of being able to do both: the line and the long snap,” Burman, 78, told me last month. “I also know I had value as an offensive lineman, because in an emergency, I knew all five offensive line positions and could at least go out there and not make a mistake. I might not physically be the best offensive tackle, but I didn’t screw up. So I always thought of myself not as solely a long snapper.
“But I knew that, certainly, if I was just an offensive lineman, George would not have traded for me.”
The George in question is George Allen, the legendary Pro Football Hall of Fame coach who was the first in the NFL to hire one coach specifically for special teams. Burman credits Allen as one of the major influences on his life, on and off the field. And “off the field” is no small potatoes — during his NFL offseasons, Burman earned two advanced degrees at University of Chicago and went on to an illustrious academic career, capped by two decades at Syracuse University with 13 years as dean of the university’s school of management.
His management lessons came from Allen. But they also came from his longtime special teams coach on both the Rams and in Washington, Marv Levy. And his first special teams coach, Dick Vermeil. And his first NFL head coach, George Halas. Each of those men is among the best known and most accomplished persons in the history of the NFL.
Burman is not. But he holds a unique place in history. This is the untold tale of how he became the NFL’s first specialist long snapper. His story begins in northwest Indiana, Northwestern University — and our Chicago Bears.
George Burman, long snap, Super Bowl VII. pic.twitter.com/pxJF287k3i— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) December 29, 2020
Chapter 1: The lineman
George Burman arrived in the NFL for the 1964 season as a 15th round draft pick of the defending champion Chicago Bears. A versatile talent known for both his body and brain, Burman came to Northwestern as a tackle but spent most of his time playing end — that’s tight end on offense and defensive end on defense. In the classroom he finished his senior season as one of the 11 men named to the first team All-Academic squad.
He did not do the long snap at Northwestern. But he built himself a reputation as a tough, coachable player of deep intelligence and malleable physicality.
“Alex Agase in particular taught me things about myself — things that would have been hard to learn in something (that isn’t) so obvious and visible,” Burman says today about his second coach at Northwestern. “I remember Agase at one point screaming at me, saying that I was lazy, and not giving it my all. Your first reaction, of course, is, ‘That’s bullshit!’ And then you have this epiphany: ‘Dammit, he’s right!’”
Burman loved learning. His plan after Northwestern was to attend the University of Chicago to earn his MBA. So he asked the dean of the business school, on the off chance that he made the Bears, could he start his coursework in January of ‘65 instead of September of ‘64? Yes, yes, not a problem, though Burman reassured the dean that would not happen.
“Surprise, surprise,” he says now, “I made the team.”
His lessons came fast. They started with the man who would change Burman’s NFL career: George Allen. As head of the team’s scouting department, Allen was instrumental in bringing Burman to the Bears, saying he would be an offensive lineman. Tackle, Allen said. That changed to center in Burman’s rookie year after Pro Bowler Mike Pyle turned his ankle in practice prior to the Week 3 game against the Colts. Burman replaced him as the team’s starter center. The Bears lost 52-0.
“Don’t blame Burman for losing this one,” head coach George Halas said afterward. “I thought he played a real good game considering that this was the first time he ever played center for us. He certainly wasn’t the reason we got beat so bad.”
He wasn’t the reason but he wasn’t yet helping. He struggled early, particularly since he was still learning to simply snap the ball. Pyle trained him (“He was a great guy and he was very helpful,” Burman says) and his progress came fast. After his second start, the Tribune described him as “striving mightily” to fill in for Pyle. By his third start, the Tribune was praising him following a 38-17 win over the Rams, with Cooper Rollow writing:
“But the big difference here may have been the improvement of George Burman, the erstwhile Northwestern (U)niversity end and tackle who, for the first time since he was asked to fill in for the injured Mike Pyle three weeks ago, seemed to be at home at center.”
“I had to learn everything,” Burman says now. “On the snap to the quarterback, most of the quarterbacks wanted it to come up hard. They have a hand under your butt and the ball is supposed to hit that upper hand as hard as you can. Why that was the case, I’m not sure, not being a quarterback, but it would hit that hand and the other hand would clamp it. That was the first thing I had to learn.”
Later he would learn to long snap. But not yet. Pyle handled the long snapping for the Bears, and despite his injury the job did not go to Burman, who had enough on his plate. Today, a long snapper is a position. You earn your paycheck on 10 plays per game, give or take, with punts, field goals and extra points. That was not the case in 1964. Long snapping was an ancillary duty held by players primarily responsible for other positions. Most were centers, like Pyle or Ken Iman of the Rams. Others were linebackers, like D.D. Lewis of the Cowboys, or even the great Bobby Bell, the Hall of Fame linebacker who snapped for the Chiefs.
“Special teams guys were other position players, even the kickers,” says Pro Football Hall of Fame voter and special teams expert Rick Gosselin, who has published his own annual NFL special teams rankings since 1985. “Everybody did something else. I think the last one to come around was the deep snapping position.”
Pyle returned for the sixth game of the ‘64 season and started the remainder of the year. Burman watched and learned, even spending all of 1965 on the taxi squad. No matter. He developed a keen eye for how career backups could carve a space in the NFL. The specialty teams, Burman knew, was an avenue to the field on Sundays. He recalls a Bears kickoff in a preseason game in 1965 when his fellow second-year man, Jim Purnell, ran hard to cover the kick.
“He went down the field and hit the wedge full speed,” Burman says. “He got crushed. And I said to him, ‘You just made the team.’ And he did. Because he sold out completely.”
Chapter 2: The innovator
George Allen was a football inventor. Strategies, playbooks, units — sure. But literally footballs. When the Bears hired Allen in 1958, he was the inventor of weighted footballs manufactured by Voit Rubber Co., designed to help centers and quarterbacks become stronger in practice.
The balls were successful — Halas was said to be using them in Bears practices, as was Chargers head coach Sid Gillman, under whom Allen had served as ends coach in 1957. The “Power Wrist” ball, for centers, weighed 23 ounces, up from the regulation football of 15 ½ ounces of the day, while the “Power Arm” ball weighed 19 ounces. By 1958, Allen was a published author, the inventor of special footballs, the inventor of a special kicking tee and the inventor of what one newspaper writer called “an interchangeable rubber stamp for scouts to use in diagramming plays.”
“I respected George,” Burman says today. “Was he an unusual guy? Of course. He had his quirks. But I enjoyed playing for the guy.”
Most did. Burman came to the Bears for the ‘64 season, the year after the team won the 1963 NFL championship. Allen, a player’s coach of the highest order, was becoming a powerful force in the organization. As director of player personnel, he led the scouting and drafting efforts that brought in ‘63 starters Richie Petitbon, Mike Ditka, Ed O’Bradovich and Bennie McRae. As defensive coordinator, he led the Bears D to #1 in the NFL in 1963, the team’s key unit en route to the championship.
“Our defensive coach, George Allen, has made us real ball-conscious by pounding away that it’s anybody’s ball as soon as it goes up in the air,” Bears safety Rosey Taylor said on the eve of the ‘63 title game. That defense was one of the league’s all-time greats: first in the NFL with the fewest points allowed at just 10.3 per game, first against the rush, first against the pass, a league-leading 36 interceptions. Taylor led the NFL with nine interceptions. Each of the other three DB starters picked off at least six passes apiece. Five of the 11 starters were named first team All Pro.
Their shining moment came in the title game, forcing league MVP Y.A. Tittle to his worst performance of the season: 11-29, 147 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions.
“I want to make a short speech,” defensive star Joe Fortunato announced in the locker room, as the Bears celebrated the 14-10 victory and the franchise’s first NFL championship since 1946. “I want to announce, as one of the co-captains, that the game ball goes to the man who played such a great part in our fine defense — coach George Allen.”
Fortunato tossed Allen the ball and the celebration continued.
“Halas was an old curmudgeon at that point, when I joined the Bears,” Burman says now. “He was in his own strange way entertaining, just because he was so strange.”
Like that day in training camp in Rensselaer, Indiana, when the offensive line was running through plays at about half speed and Halas saw what he deemed a mistake.
“He gets in there and tells everybody what they’re supposed to do, and we realize, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” Burman says. “The offensive line coach says (to us), ‘Don’t say anything, we’ll talk about it later.’ In other words, we know it’s all wrong but we’ll talk about it later.”
Yet Halas, the sage old man, was still regarded as “sage,” not just “old.”
“Knowing the Bears history and NFL history, how could you not have this tremendous respect for Halas?” Burman says. “I don’t know if it was willpower or what, but against all odds, he was a big part of creating the NFL, and certainly the Bears. The Halas story is amazing.”
That was the internal tension on the Bears in ‘64 and ‘65: the fulcrum between the past, led by Halas, 68, and a possible new future, led by Allen, 45.
“I don’t think (the players) thought about (Halas and Allen) in a comparative sense — I think clearly the players thought that Halas was past his prime as a coach, however you want to put it gently, and Allen was coming into his own,” Burman says. “Most people, the championship in ‘63, attribute that to the defense. And that Allen was a brilliant defensive coach. That certainly was his focus.”
Allen wanted to be the next head coach of the Chicago Bears. Had Halas handed him the keys, the next decade of Chicago Bears football may have been very different. Yet Halas was not prepared to relinquish the job. So after 1965, the highly sought-after Allen accepted an offer to become head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. This led to a bitter legal dispute in which Halas took Allen to court to enforce his contract, which had two seasons remaining, and which prohibited Allen from taking any other coaching position even though standard practice in the NFL was for assistants to leave when offered head coaching jobs.
No one knew it yet, but Halas’s lawsuit held Burman’s NFL future in the balance. As the court proceedings played out, sympathy grew for Allen, helping his case at least in the press and with the public. Short of getting Allen to stay, Halas got the one other thing he wanted: He proved that he and Allen did indeed have a contract which Allen was going to violate, (and which Allen admitted in court he had not actually read).
With that, Halas withdrew his suit, and Burman’s NFL destiny changed. Allen was now free to take the Rams job, a 4-10 club where he would need a lot of help.
“He asked me if I was a free agent, and I said yeah,” Burman says. “And I signed with George in L.A. Then I got a call from Mugsy Halas — Halas Jr. — saying they had plans for me and didn’t understand — they thought they had me under contract. I said, No, sorry, you did not.”
George Allen was off to the Rams. And in what would become a career trend, he was taking Burman with him.
Chapter 3: The first special teams unit
George Burman began his NFL career as a 15th round pick whose main place on the team was as a backup offensive lineman, and who landed on the taxi squad his entire second year.
He ended his NFL career as a de facto starter in a Super Bowl with a Hall of Fame coach who made a special effort to acquire him wherever he went. The reason was his embrace of specialization, a trait he shared with his longtime coach.
“Your piano player has to play piano,” George Allen said in 1968. “You just can’t forever be shuffling him from piano to drums to banjo.”
Allen was speaking about his plans for his team’s defensive backfield, but it also explains his love of Burman, who regularly showed just how important his piano playing could be for a winner, so to speak. Allen’s move from the Bears to the Rams became the difference between Burman being perhaps a lifelong academic who had a few nondescript years in professional football, and being someone who became a vital piece of a Super Bowl team. In 2003, Burman described himself as “shocked” that he made the NFL.
“And it’s almost like I was shocked every year thereafter that I hung around,” he said.
Looking at Burman’s NFL career from a modern perspective, it’s easy to understand why he played as long as he did. But watching his career play out in real time would have been flummoxing. That is, unless you understood what George Allen was building in Los Angeles: the NFL’s first special teams unit.
“He felt that if you didn’t take care to make sure your special teams had the best people, and knew what they were doing, it could hurt you in a game,” Burman says. “Given some things he did, he was in fact the first one to raise special teams to that level.”
Allen started paving the way to the first special teams unit in 1966, his first year with the Rams. He tabbed third-year fullback Les Josephson as the franchise’s first special teams captain, following the lead of the league’s other famous special teams innovator, Baltimore’s Don Shula, who in the early 1960s became the first head coach to include a special teams captain at the coin toss, the famous Alex “Captain Who?” Hawkins.
He also made Burman the long snapper on punts, while Iman handled the snap on field goals and extra points. Now that Burman knew how to snap to the quarterback, he learned to long snap courtesy of lessons from Pyle in Chicago and Iman in Los Angeles.
“A coach would just say, ‘You gotta get it higher or lower, do a better job’ or something, but I don’t recall that there was any coach who felt they understood the long snap sufficiently to try to coach it,” Burman says. “You want to go back hard and fast. A good clean spiral at the right height straight at the punter, straight at the holder, and you observe in real time what happened. But you did have to get your head up, because you were going to play football once you snapped it.”
In his first year with the Rams, he was snapping on punts against the Bears when Dick Butkus figured him out. Burman had developed a routine on his snaps: a head bob.
“Butkus loved to crush the center on field goals, extra points and punts,” Burman says. “He would line up at linebacker, but he would time it and take a run at it, and the first time he put me flat on my back. No problem with the snap but he put me flat on my back.”
Now it was Burman’s turn to adjust. He gave Butkus a double head bob, which got him back on his heels.
“He didn’t put me on my back that time,” Burman says.
All around him, the team was learning how to win. While Burman was part of a burgeoning special teams program, Allen was building the other phases of the game. He hired two coaches who would become his longstanding offensive assistants, Ted Marchibroda and Howard Schnellenberger. He signed Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Bill George to bring leadership and stability to the defense and to call the defensive signals.
In 1966, the Rams improved by four games, going 8-6. In ‘67, they went 11-1-2 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1955. Allen shared the NFL’s Coach of the Year award with Shula. In 1968, the Rams went 10-3-1 but finished 2nd in the division and missed the playoffs; Burman played only one game that season due to a knee injury.
And then, in 1969, Allen made another innovative decision that would rewrite the NFL, and the course of Burman’s career. The Rams became the first franchise to hire a coach just to run the special teams: 32-year-old up-and-comer Dick Vermeil.
“Most of the people on the special teams are non-starters,” Vermeil said that November. “But they have a lot of enthusiasm and take a great deal of pride in what they do.”
That of course fits Burman to a tee, and he was integral as Allen and Vermeil created the template for the modern special teams unit. The ‘69 Rams dedicated 25 minutes of each practice to special teams play, and had a handful of players whose main responsibilities were on specialty units. That included Burman, along with his old Bears teammate Jim Purnell, who Allen called “a hitter with a capital H.”
A Los Angeles Times feature in late November of 1969 showed just how advanced the Rams were. Vermeil explained terms like “hang time” on punts, and cited a number of special teams-centric statistics. The punter they would play that week had a slightly better distance average than the Rams’ punter, you see, but Vermeil’s coverage unit was holding opposing returners to just 5.1 yards per punt return, compared to 10.9 yards for the opponent’s punter. Vermeil noted how quickly L.A.’s punter could get off a punt (1.9 seconds), and raved that the team’s kicker was putting nearly 50% of kickoffs into the end zone.
The next year, Vermeil became offensive coordinator at UCLA and Allen replaced him with 45-year-old Marv Levy, who spent 1969 on the Eagles staff with several duties, including coaching the kicking teams. Under Allen, Levy could expand on what he started in Philadelphia, because Allen prioritized special teams at the same level of offense and defense.
“George makes the special teams important,” Levy said early in the 1972 season. “He not only says it is, but he keeps men on the roster just for the special teams.”
Within that context it’s easy to see why Burman became so vital to Allen’s success. That’s how Allen made decisions. If the team had seven wide receivers in camp, Allen would ask the receivers coach for the top three. Then he would ask Levy which of the remaining four was the best special teamer.
“It didn’t matter to George if the guy was the seventh-best receiver,” Levy said in 2014. “He’d keep the guy I wanted.”
Again and again, George Burman was the guy Allen wanted. But if he wanted him for his next NFL stop, he would have to talk him into delaying his future.
Chapter 4: The dean
After five winning seasons and two playoff appearances, George Allen’s time with the Rams came to an end after the 1970 season, when Rams ownership got tired of his controlling ways and handed him his walking papers. Burman took that as an opportunity to retire and begin his next phase of life, heading back to University of Chicago to earn his Ph.D. in labor economics.
As successful as George Allen was in football, that’s how successful Burman was outside of football. Indeed, while the name “George Burman” remains a mystery even among most hard core NFL fans, the names “Dr. George Burman” and “Dean George Burman” are renowned.
He completed his doctorate in 1973, publishing his dissertation, “The Economics of Discrimination: The Impact of Public Policy.” In 1974, he was a consultant for the NFL Players Association during league contract negotiations. In 1975, a group of then-current and former NFL players called him to testify as a witness for their antitrust suit against the NFL as part of an effort to eliminate the so-called Rozelle Rule, which restricted free agency. The rule stipulated that a team signing a free agent had to compensate the team losing the free agent. If the teams couldn’t agree on the price, the league commissioner, then Pete Rozelle, would decide for them.
The rule disincentivized teams from signing free agents out of fear of an exorbitant reimbursement cost. Dr. Burman argued against the rule, accurately predicting during his testimony that its elimination would have zero impact on “the industry” of football, and would merely allow players to make more money, while owners would find new ways to maximize their profits.
In 1979, a Washington Post feature on the 1972 Washington team that reached Super Bowl VII found Burman working as a staff economist for Gulf Oil’s International Exploration and Production Company.
“My life is a lot more serious now,” Burman told the Post. “Oh sure, training camp was hard work, but you can play a little too, to maintain your sanity. But now we’re all in the real world, so to speak. ... Football provided a great physical release for me, and you had a lot of free time. I don’t have that any more.”
He stayed with Gulf Oil Corp. through the mid-1980s, spent three years as manager of planning and analysis at Chevron, and in 1990 returned to academia, beginning a 13-year run as dean of the school of management at Syracuse University, leading the fundraising efforts to build the school’s new $35 million facility. After a year sabbatical, Burman returned to the university where he taught until his full retirement in 2013.
“When we look back, I am sure that George Burman will go down as one of the finest deans the School of Management has had. His accomplishments are numerous,” Vice Chancellor and Provost Deborah A. Freund said in 2002 upon Burman announcing his impending resignation as dean. “He has done all of the things to position the school to make its next leap. And if that wasn’t enough, his mild and thoughtful manner has made him a colleague that many others on campus have sought to work with.”
That mild and thoughtful manner surely was influenced by the great Marv Levy.
“He could talk with you reasonably — he wasn’t a screamer,” Burman says now of his old coach. “He treated you like an adult. And he built an expectation within you that you wanted to achieve what he wanted you to achieve. As he proved later as a head coach, he had those kinds of leadership skills, where he could bring the best out of people.”
Even if Burman had never made the Bears, or even if his pro career had ended after just a few seasons, I have no doubt that he would have gone on to all of the success he had after leaving the NFL. But football shaped him in ways that rippled throughout each institution he entered after leaving the game. You would be hard pressed to find an NFL player who played for a wider array of all-time great coaches than George Burman.
His first coach at Northwestern was College Football Hall of Famer Ara Parseghian, followed by the deeply talented Agase. With the Bears, he had Halas and Allen, along with Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman, who coached the quarterbacks, and tackle Joe Stydahar, who coached the defensive line.
There was Vermeil, who went on to lead Super Bowl teams with the Eagles and Rams, two decades apart, winning with the latter. There was Marchibroda, who later served as offensive coordinator for the first two of Marv Levy’s Super Bowl Bills teams and coached the Colts to a stunning appearance in the 1995 AFC championship game. There was Schnellenberger, who ran the offense on the undefeated ‘72 Dolphins before leading the resurgence of the University of Miami’s football program, winning the 1983 national championship.
And of course there was Levy, who coached the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls.
“I guess in some ways I consider myself lucky — Ara Parseghian and his assistant coaches at Northwestern, and George Allen and his assistant coaches in L.A. and Washington, were really good people and good leaders who got the best out of their people,” Burman says. “George was a good judge of people, I think. And I was one of those who benefited.”
Chapter 5: The first long snapper
Mike Ditka was the NFL’s first modern tight end. Bill George was the league’s first middle linebacker. Unlike these famous firsts, George Burman did not invent a position. What he did was put his position, long snapping, on the path to where it is today: a standalone roster spot.
“I love (Burman’s) story, and I love the fact that George Allen back in the day realized that it was an important position,” says long snapper great Patrick Mannelly. Mannelly was a history major at Duke, and is a student of the long snapping position, yet even he did not know of Burman.
Gosselin didn’t either. He learned special teams while covering the Chiefs in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, overlapping with Levy’s tenure and special teams coach Frank Gansz, the man Vermeil called in 2019 “the finest special teams coach ever.” Unlike Ditka and Bill George, Burman’s history has been lost.
“I didn’t know about the first deep snapper — I couldn’t have told you,” Gosselin told me after we discussed Burman. “And I asked Vermeil and he didn’t know. ... And I asked (Bill) Parcells, and he didn’t know. But if you can document your guy, he’s probably the guy, because no one else can document it.”
Burman’s path to this historic position began in 1971. Less than two weeks after the Rams fired Allen, Washington won a sweepstakes against several teams to make Allen head coach. They named him general manager too and paid him $125,000 per year, then the highest paid coach in NFL history.
Among the first moves of the highest paid coach in NFL history: trade for Burman.
“I told L.A. I was retiring, and when George first contacted me (and) said he had traded for me, I said, ‘Did they tell you I retired?’” Burman says with a laugh.
Allen’s pursuit of Burman was part of his rebuilding strategy, the same one he’d implemented with the Rams to drive their quick turnaround: trading for veterans. Along with bringing key men from his staff, including Marchibroda to run the offense and of course Levy to run the special teams, Allen was the master wheeler-dealer. By June of ‘71 he had acquired 18 new players, 15 by trade, while trading away five players and a whopping 20 picks. Two months later when the preseason started, he’d traded 28 total picks.
“NFL teams consider draft choices like gold, and yes, the draft is obviously critical, and teams that do better in the draft do better,” Burman says. “But (Allen) viewed draft choices (in two ways). You could draft a player, which may work or may not, or you could trade for a proven player, some of whom have been All Pro on other teams. It’s a difference of opinion, but it went against the collective wisdom of the NFL and you weren’t supposed to do that.”
Allen took his knack for specialization to even new heights in Washington. He traded for veteran backup quarterback Sam Wyche just to be the holder on place kicks. But he couldn’t talk Burman out of retirement, so he handed the long snapping duties to a rookie.
In the first preseason game, with Washington leading San Diego 10-3 in the third quarter, that rookie air-mailed a snap over the head of punter Mike Bragg and out of the endzone for a safety, triggering a collapse and a 19-10 loss. So Allen made another plea to Burman to cancel his retirement. He made him a unique offer. While Burman would remain a depth chart offensive lineman, in reality, he would have one job: the long snapper on punts.
He was now the NFL’s first specialist long snapper.
“When George signed me in L.A., I don’t think that’s when I would have thought that,” Burman says about whether he would consider himself “the first long snapper” starting with his time on the Rams. “I thought the whole package was why he was signing me. And I made a pretty good run at trying to beat out Kenny (Iman) for the starting center job. I thought I was competitive and I was a little disappointed that I didn’t (get it). At that point, I was still thinking about myself as an offensive lineman who did a long snap. And then it became clear that (long snapping) was the ticket for me.”
This was a bold maneuver by Allen. On game day in 2019, NFL teams suited up 46 active players. (Rules are a bit different this year with COVID-19.) Dedicating one of 46 roster spots to a standalone long snapper makes sense, and obviously that has been the case since the late 1990s.
But for Burman’s entire career, the active roster on game day was just 40 players. One of Allen’s slogans was “40 men together can’t lose,” and here he was committing one of those 40 spots each game to a man who, assuming all went according to plan, would only take the field to snap on punts — perhaps fewer than five times per game.
“I certainly felt pressure like any football player on any team at any position — if you don’t do your job well, you don’t last long,” Burman says. “But did I feel anything beyond that normal, ‘You have to do your job and do it right’? That kind of normal pressure for an athlete? I don’t think so, in part because I was there at practice, practicing with the offensive linemen.”
Burman does not know how many players knew he was “just a long snapper,” since he was technically also a backup lineman, just as he’d been in Los Angeles. And there were so many ex-Rams on Washington in 1971 that the team was nicknamed “The Ramskins.” Until Burman’s final season in 1972, he would take reps in practice as a backup offensive lineman. He would play on the line in the preseason, and get line reps in the occasional game.
“I don’t think being a backup offensive lineman was irrelevant to my career, but I totally agree that the reason I got traded, and that George gave up a couple of draft choices for me to go to Washington, was the long snap,” Burman says. “There’s no question about that.”
His ascension marked a fundamental shift in the role of long snappers. By 1978, the year after Allen’s final NFL season, Marchibroda, Vermeil and Levy were all head coaches, spreading Allen’s lessons. Levy’s special teams coach on the Chiefs was Bobby Ross, the future Super Bowl coach of the Chargers. Marchibroda’s first season running the Colts was 1975, in which he gave a 23-year-old his first NFL coaching job as a film scout: Bill Belichick.
While this was happening, rosters were expanding. In 1974, the NFL boosted game day rosters from 40 to 47, dropped it to 43 the next year and jumped it to 45 in 1978; game day rosters have not been lower than 45 since then. This new crop of special teams-minded coaches took advantage of the additional spots. Vermeil hired Iman as his special teams coach on the Eagles and in 1976 used an open tryout (an old Allen staple) to discover special teamer Vince Papale.
In 1981 as head coach of the Chiefs, Levy spent a 5th round pick on offensive lineman Todd Thomas of North Dakota in part because he could contribute as a long snapper. Levy would of course go on to coach perhaps the greatest special teams specialist of all time, Steve Tasker.
“There wasn’t that premium placed on special teams,” says Gosselin, who watched throughout the 1980s as the rest of the league caught up to what Allen had started. “I would say it was the mid-1980s that the NFL really dialed in on special teams and decided, We have to have special teams specialists.”
This was a new era of special teams, and of NFL long snapping. In the pre-Burman years, the long snapper had to earn his keep elsewhere on the roster; throughout the 1980s, long snapping became at least equal to that player’s other position. The great Steve DeOssie was a long snapper and a linebacker. Trey Junkin, who played 281 games, the most in NFL history for a long snapper, was also a tight end and linebacker.
Special teams experienced a major evolutionary leap in 1986, when the Chiefs, with special teams coached by Gansz, came to Pittsburgh needing a win to make the playoffs. They had a poor offense and a middling defense but won 24-21 with all points coming from special teams: touchdowns on a blocked punt, blocked field goal and kick return, plus a field goal.
“That’s when (Hall of Fame Steelers coach) Chuck Noll decided, ‘I have to get a special teams coach,’” Gosselin says. “It ballooned quickly from there. Once everyone got special teams coaches, it became a specialized aspect of football. It was an aspect of football that could win or lose games, and that’s when they got specialists on their rosters. You can’t afford to lose a game on a blocked punt, or whatever.”
If Burman marked the position’s first evolutionary leap, and Allen’s coaching tree marked the second, the third was teams acknowledging that long snapper was its own position. They no longer had to prove their worth in other ways. In 1997, the Bears’ long snapper was Harper LeBel, a backup tight end.
The next year, the Bears made history of their own, becoming the first team to draft a player specifically to be a long snapper: Patrick Mannelly.
The path from Burman — the first specialist long snapper — to Mannelly, the first drafted specialist long snapper, is more than symbolic. Mannelly’s three primary special teams coaches with the Bears, Keith Armstrong, Mike Sweatman, Dave Toub, can trace their careers to George Allen, all through Gansz, who passed away in 2009. Armstrong coached with Gansz on the ‘94 Falcons, Sweatman has one degree of separation from Gansz via Les Steckel, while Toub’s brief playing career was on the ‘85 Eagles, where Gansz ran special teams.
“Fourth down is a very important down, obviously,” says Mannelly, who now trains college long snappers as they prepare for the NFL Draft, and is one of the co-founders of The Patrick Mannelly Award, given annually to the best college long snapper at the Division 1 FBS level. “You can kick field goals, or you can try to change field position with punts, and that’s part of what the long snapper position is: to make the punter feel comfortable and kick the best ball that you can. It’s cool that (Allen) recognized that back then — that he brought (Burman) in just to make the punter comfortable.”
Chapter 6: “The future is now”
George Burman’s home office in Syracuse is filled with items from his playing days — photos, footballs, helmets and the like — along with a sign on his desk that reads “The Future is Now.” This was George Allen’s mantra, his personal defense against the reporters and other NFL purists who poo-pooed his assault on the league’s traditional way of doing business.
“He was being criticized in Washington when he came there and traded draft choices for veteran players, and assembled this team of veterans,” Burman says. “But ... he turned around a franchise that hadn’t done squat for almost forever, and it became a playoff team. And when he was criticized for, quote, trading away the future, that’s when he responded with, ‘The future is now.’”
“I thought it was great.”
Onto this win-now roster came long snapper and doctoral student George Burman, who was getting closer to completing his Ph.D., which he would continue working toward while playing for Washington.
“You couldn’t find two more different things to consume your efforts — your brain, your time — than football, a very physical thing, and then the University of Chicago, a very intellectual thing,” Burman says. “It was like renewing each half of each year. So I thought, ‘It’s worked so far. Why not?’”
This put Burman front and center to one of the most memorable seasons of a deeply successful franchise: “The Over-The-Hill Gang.” That was the nickname Washington fans bestowed upon Allen’s old, tough roster, a group that would give the D.C. faithful one helluva ride.
George Allen's relationship with his players — including George Burman, #58 — was a beautiful thing. Here is Washington in 1971 celebrating its first postseason berth since the '45 championship game.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) December 30, 2020
Burman is at the start shouting: "The best!"https://t.co/3fMYRQIYS0 pic.twitter.com/zFdK6umRVR
From 1969 to 1978, the NFC (and the NFL in 1969, before the merger) sent just three teams to the Super Bowl. The Cowboys went five times, the Vikings went four. The only other team from the conference to punch a ticket was Washington in 1972.
It started in ‘71. Once again Allen transformed a franchise as soon as he arrived. His moves as GM and head coach pushed Washington to a 9-4-1 mark and 2nd place in the NFC East in his first year as coach. For the second time in his career, he was voted the NFL’s Coach of the Year.
All of this led to a playoff game against the 49ers — the toughest game of Burman’s career.
With the Niners leading 17-13 in the 4th quarter and Washington punting deep in its own territory, Burman botched the snap, sending it low to Bragg, who was standing on the goalline. The football bounced in the turf in front of Bragg and squirted beneath him, and the 49ers punt block team, already charging, made an easy recovery in the endzone to put the Niners up 24-13.
“I blew it,” Burman said after the 24-20 loss that ended Washington’s season. “I don’t know what happened. I never had one get away from the punter.”
Far from irate, Allen supported his long snapper.
“George Burman has done an excellent job for us all year long,” the coach said after the game. “You can’t expect every snap to hit you in the chest. You have to be able to pick up those low ones once in a while.”
Following the loss, Richard Nixon — a friend of Allen’s through their shared time at Whittier College in California — called the team and shared a message with the head coach.
“President Nixon just called about two minutes ago from the White House,” Allen told his team. “He said, ‘All of Washington is proud of you. Don’t look back.’”
They didn’t. They started 11-1 in 1972 and won the NFC East. The big question for Washington going into the playoffs was whether Allen could finally win a playoff game. His teams were 0-3 to that point.
Instead, they blitzed through the conference, holding the Packers and Cowboys to three points apiece and storming Super Bowl VII. The game would be held in, of all places, Los Angeles. The opponent: the undefeated Miami Dolphins, led by fellow special teams enthusiast Don Shula.
“It’s not just football that (Allen is) wrapped up in, but in the overall concept of success,” Burman said in an interview leading up to Super Bowl VII. “I don’t know what he would do if he had a losing season. It would be a personal disaster. … He has this thing about excellence. He says there’s no sacrifice too great for excellence.”
For the Over-the-Hill Gang, the Super Bowl was one hill too steep. The team gave the undefeated Dolphins a fight to remember but lost 14-7. The play that haunts them came in the third quarter, down 14-0 and driving inside the Miami 20, when quarterback Billy Kilmer had tight end Jerry Smith open in the endzone but hit the goalpost with his pass.
“I think we all felt that we were arguably a goalpost away from winning the Super Bowl,” Burman says now. “But overall, we all recognized that we had had a special year. There is a tendency in sports to think that everybody except the ultimate champion had a terrible season. And that’s not how we felt. ... We accomplished a fair bit.”
As for Washington’s one touchdown? They returned a botched Miami field goal.
Special teams to the end.
Epilogue: The next generation
The players at Whiting High School, in Whiting, Indiana, looked with awe at the golden football and the grey-haired man who brought it. They had no idea that someone who went to their school had played in the NFL, much less a Super Bowl. Yet here he was, with a football straight from the league office.
George Burman agreed: This was special. In 2015, in honor of Super Bowl 50, the NFL gave every player who ever played in a Super Bowl two golden footballs. One was for the player, and the other was for the player to bring to his high school alma mater.
“When I got the letter from (NFL commissioner Roger) Goodell, it was pretty special,” Burman told the Northwest Indiana Times that October. “Our roots really matter.”
Super Bowl VII was the final game of Burman’s career. He was still on the team in 1973 but missed the entire season with an injury. Today, he and his wife are enjoying retirement in Syracuse. Looking around at the photos in his office, he chuckles at the transformation he underwent in his nine-year career.
“I started out with the Bears in a crew cut and ended up with a 1970s long hair cut,” he laughs.
Until pressed, he never thought about a major what-if in his life: an opportunity to spend his entire NFL career with his hometown Bears. Had Halas handed the team to Allen after the ‘65 season, that’s likely what would have happened.
“I probably don’t think about it, but when you mention it, yeah, that would have been pretty amazing,” Burman says. “I remember playing at Wrigley, and my parents, who have both passed, came to the game, and I remember walking over that low brick wall along the third base line and talking with them. That was a special moment for me. I guess I remember a lot of moments from my career, but that one stands out — to share something with your parents like that.”
George Allen coached Washington until 1977, with three more trips to the postseason. Other than two preseason games with the Rams in 1978, 1977 was his final season as an NFL head coach; in 12 years he had 12 winning seasons, reached seven postseasons, won three division titles, won two Coach of the Year awards, reached one Super Bowl and had a .712 winning percentage.
In the 1980s, President Reagan appointed Allen as chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, a role he held from 1981 to 1988, during which time he also coached two seasons in the USFL, compiling a winning record in each. In 1990, at age 72, he coached the Long Beach State 49ers to a 6-5 record after an 0-3 start, and passed away on December 31. His team carried him off the field for his final game as a football coach. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
A year later, Burman retired from his job as dean.
“I think I learned lessons about life all through my athletic career, like that moment at Northwestern,” he says now about that day Agase called him out. “And the disappointments — getting put on the taxi squad — you learn from all of that. You get tougher. You learn what it takes to be successful. And you also learn something about doing the right things. Sometimes we screw up, not out of malice, but just out of stupidity. I credit my athletic career with having an awful lot to do with my evolution as a human, and it led to success after football.”
That success was on full display at Whiting that blustery Friday night in October 2015. He spoke with the players, told them about his days in the NFL, told them about his days on the Whiting Oilers. Told them about his pride of playing for Whiting, about his disappointment in losing the Super Bowl, about what football meant to his life.
“We asked him who the toughest guy he played against was, and he said Dick Butkus,” one of the Whiting players said that night. “That was awesome. But he told us he just retired from being a professor at Syracuse, too. That’s pretty cool, too.”
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.
Thank you’s for this story are in order. George Burman, Sam Rodgers, Patrick Mannelly, Rick Gosselin, Kevin Gallagher, Lester Wiltfong Jr., Jeff Berckes, Jimmy Greenfield, Charles Silverstein, John Turney, Greg Gabriel, Dick Vermeil, Bill Parcells, Thomas Morstead, Steve Hanlon, Brett Jennings, Curt Gowdy.
And of course, to Pro Football Reference, Newspapers.com and NFL Films.