Super Bowl Sunday Special: The Birth of the NFL Championship
Thorn’s the name and baseball’s the game, certainly at this blog, now nearing 300 entries. But I confess to having written rather a lot about pro football, too, over the past 35 years, and loving the game. On this Super Bowl Sunday, I am thinking that some of you–even the most diehard of baseball fans, who see this day as a welcome milepost on the road to spring training–may enjoy knowing the origins of the Super Bowl, more distant than 1967. This essay appeared in The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book (Grand Central Publishing, 2012; http://goo.gl/87smeb).
Throughout the 1920s the National Football League was a single entity, without subordinate divisions or conferences. In this the NFL modeled itself on the rise of professional baseball’s league structure, going back to 1871, when the championship was decided by the best record in the league season. Baseball did not have a postseason championship contest until an upstart league in its third campaign, the American Association, challenged the National League to meet in a World Series in 1884.
In the NFL’s first decade, the number of clubs in a given season ranged from a high of 22 in 1926 to a low of 10 only three years later, with no requirement that clubs contending for the championship play an equal number of games. In 1928, for example, the Providence Steam Roller (8–1–2) was named the champion despite having played five fewer games than the Frankford Yellow Jackets (11–3–2). The NFL awarded its championship to the club with the highest winning percentage, disregarding ties—which were plentiful, as were the disputed titles.
But these were not the only issues threatening the continued existence of the NFL. After a brief flurry of prosperity in the wake of the Red Grange tour of 1925, which prompted the formation of a rival American Football League for the following season, pro football sank back into a morass of low-scoring thumb-twiddlers played largely by fly-by-night franchises in second-tier cities. In 1931, half of the league’s teams averaged less than seven points per game.
A relaxing of the substitution rules for 1932, allowing a replaced player to return in a subsequent quarter, failed to boost scoring. In 1932, NFL games averaged only 16.4 points for both teams. Of the 14 games played by the champion Chicago Bears that season, six ended in ties. By this time the league had franchises in New York, Brooklyn, and Boston, and two in Chicago—as well as that hardy ex-urban outlier, Green Bay—but it also had clubs in Staten Island and Portsmouth, Ohio. Along the way, franchises had failed in major cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, and Cleveland, not to mention Akron, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Louisville, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Newark, Providence, and Toledo.
With the Depression settling in, it seemed that the prospects for professional football were growing dimmer with each passing year. The number of league clubs declined in each year between 1929 and 1932, until only eight teams lined up for play. Competitive imbalance left two-thirds of the NFL’s clubs to play out the string before the frost was on the punkin. The league had neither parity nor a plan for achieving it: the first draft of collegiate players would not come until 1936.
What saved the NFL was a series of happy accidents in the season finales of 1932 and 1933; the first was a playoff game to break a tie for the pennant, while the next was the league’s first championship game, the direct ancestor of our great national festival, the Super Bowl. Rules innovations born of desperation opened up the stodgy old game to the dormant capabilities of the forward pass; innovative play calling and increased scoring came to the rescue just as the lights were about to be shut off.
Coming into the 1932 season the Green Bay Packers, who had won the last three championships, were once again counted as the favorite. However, a midseason tie with the Bears and upset losses to the New York Giants and Portsmouth Spartans left them on the outside looking in despite their record, going into the final weekend, of 10–2–1. Portsmouth had already completed its schedule at 6–1–4, but the 5–1–6 Bears still had one more game to play and, with a win over the defending champions, could pull into a tie.
On December 11 the punchless Bears struggled to a 0–0 tie with the Packers through three snowy quarters in Chicago. In the final period, however, the Bears put up nine points to create the NFL’s first deadlocked season. Had the league compiled its standings then as it does now, and has since 1974—counting each tie as half a win and half a loss—the title would have gone to Green Bay with ten-and-one-half “wins” to Chicago’s nine and Portsmouth’s eight. But in 1932 ties were non-events.
The NFL had no policy for dealing with a season-ending tie for first place; in fact the league didn’t even handle scheduling—that was up to the teams themselves. The Bears and Spartans agreed to hold a showdown game at Chicago on December 18. But Sunday’s snow showed no sign of letting up as the days wore on and paralyzing cold gripped the city. It would be impossible to host the game at Wrigley Field even for the hardiest fans.
This was not to be a postseason championship game, but an additional regular-season game that would be counted in the standings. Whichever team lost would slip to third place behind the Packers!
George Halas, recalling a charity game that the Bears and Cardinals had played only two years before, suggested that the contest be moved indoors to Chicago Stadium. The Spartans, hoping for a change in the weather, waited to commit but on Friday finally relented.
This indoor facility, built in 1929 to host civic events, hockey games, boxing matches, and circuses, was not meant for football, at 45 yards wide and 80 yards long. Rounded corners further cut into the athletes’ space. With two half-moon end zones, the normal playing surface of 100 yards would somehow have to be shoehorned into 60. Bob Carroll observed:
A circus was scheduled into the stadium a few days later so a six-inch layer of dirt covered the floor. Apparently the dirt was recycled from an earlier circus; several of the players who appeared in the game insisted that years later they still had the smell of elephant manure in their nostrils.
Here necessity proved the mother of invention, as it had for the 1930 exhibition game. The ball was kicked off from the 10-yard line. Only one set of goalposts was used, and that was placed at the goal line, not at the end line. When a team crossed midfield, it immediately was set back twenty yards. Because the 12-foot-high hockey dasher boards surrounded the whole field only a few feet from the sidelines, the ball was moved in ten yards after each out-of-bounds play instead of starting the next play right at the edge, as was the normal practice. The offensive team sacrificed a down each time the ball was thus moved. College football, whose rules the NFL almost universally adopted, had legalized this use of “hash marks” a year earlier, but this was its first use in the pro game. Another special rule dictated that touchbacks were brought out to only the ten. Field goals were banned.
Portsmouth had been led all season by quarterback Dutch Clark, but he could not play in the playoff game because, anticipating a December 11 end to the NFL season, he had committed himself to coach basketball at his alma mater, Colorado College, which would permit no delay. Tailback Glenn Presnell picked up the slack, losing a certain touchdown on a fourth-and-goal play from the six-yard line when he slipped on the suspect turf.
The Bears were led by the veteran Red Grange, no longer elusive after injuries to his knees but still a heady runner, and Bronko Nagurski, a 238-pound fullback who trampled would-be tacklers with his head down and his knees pumping, as well as a fearsome linebacker. Although the Spartans had the best of play through three quarters and might well have jumped out on top had field goals been permitted, the score was—yet again in this dismal season for scoring—tied at 0–0. The 12,000 fans that had left their hearths for this indoor novelty game began to wonder why.
Then Chicago halfback Dick Nesbitt intercepted an Ace Gutowsky pass and returned it ten yards before being knocked out of bounds at the Portsmouth seven. The ball was brought into the field ten yards, costing the Bears a down. On second down, Nagurski burst through the line for six yards. On his next try, he lost a yard. Fourth and two! Nagurski faked a plunge into the line, retreated a few steps, and fired a jump pass to Grange for the go-ahead touchdown.
NFL rules allowed a forward pass only if it was thrown five or more yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Spartans protested that Nagurski had not stepped back far enough. The officials disagreed. The Bears added the conversion and, a few moments later, a safety.
Who emerged as the champion of this struggling eight-team league was not the central fact about this game. At their meeting in Pittsburgh in February 1933, NFL owners adopted three rules changes inspired by the playoff confines: (1) the ball was to be moved 10 yards in from the sideline after going out of bounds, without costing the offensive team a down, and hashmarks were placed on the field; (2) goalposts were moved from the end line to the goal line to increase scoring; and (3) a forward pass was allowed from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, since the previous rule was observed largely in the breach.
These changes began to thaw the game from its defensive deep freeze, increasing scoring and cutting the number of ties in half. George Preston Marshall, owner of the Boston Braves (now the Washington Redskins), seeing that the playoff game of 1932 had won unprecedented coverage for the NFL, urged his fellow magnates to reorganize the league (restored to ten teams for 1933) into Eastern and Western Divisions, with a postseason championship game.
Soon wide-sweeping runs and passes would provide the points that power, endurance, and off-tackle runs had not; the tricky blocking schemes of the single wing soon would seem dowdy compared to the passing plays possible out of the T formation. The forward pass itself was not new. It had entered the game with the collegiate rule changes of 1906, designed to blunt the impact of mass-momentum plays and reduce injury. Brad Robinson, playing for St. Louis University coach Eddie Cochems, is said to have thrown the first legal pass in a September 5, 1906 game against Carroll College at Waukesha, Wisconsin. Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dorais, who is sometimes credited with this innovation himself, entered football lore with his passing exploits against Army in 1913, completing 14 of his 17 heaves of the oblate spheroid, many to end Knute Rockne, in an 35-13 upset victory.
The 1933 championship game, between the defending titlist Bears and the New York Giants, building upon the new rules, pointed the way to the NFL’s future. A razzle-dazzle display rarely if ever equaled since, it retains its status as one of the most exciting football games ever played.
Before the season the Giants, who ran a single-wing offense as did every other NFL club except the Bears, brought in triple-threat quarterback Harry Newman from the University of Michigan. From the dissolved Staten Island Stapletons, they added sturdy halfback Ken Strong. The Giants finished the regular season 11–3, first in the new Eastern Division. Newman, center Mel Hein, and end Red Badgro were named first team All-NFL. The daring Newman led the league in passes completed (53), passing yards (973), and touchdown passes (11), despite completing under 40 percent of his attempts. (The league average that year barely topped 35 percent; Sammy Baugh’s standard of accuracy was still a few years off.) Newman also led his team in rushing.
The Bears went 10–2–1 and won the Western Division, led again by Grange and Nagurski and a T-formation backfield in which everyone was a threat to throw the ball. Halfback Keith Molesworth, for example, threw more passes than quarterback Carl Brumbaugh. Speedy left end Bill Hewitt, who had caught passes from Harry Newman at Michigan, threw three touchdown passes off end-around plays. The Bears and Giants split their regular-season contests and looked to be evenly matched for the championship game, played on December 17 before 26,000 fans at Wrigley Field.
Expectations of a high-powered offensive display were foiled at the outset as the teams retreated to caveman football, each running the ball three times and punting on its first two possessions. Despite the liberalized passing rule, in 1933 it still borders on heresy to throw the ball inside your own 40-yard line. So teams will run and punt, run and punt—often kicking away on early downs—until a break comes along.
At last it did. Keith Molesworth, the Bears’ diminutive halfback, lofted a punt to Newman, who found a crack straight up the center and scooted to midfield. On third down, four yards to go, with the ball still at the left hashmark, the Giants lined up unbalanced to the right, with the left tackle Len Grant standing to the right of center Hein. Next came a surprise the Giants had cooked up especially for this game: in a simultaneous shift, left end Badgro pulled back from the line, wingback Dale Burnett stepped up alongside right end Ray Flaherty, and Newman moved in behind center, just as a T quarterback would. Thus Burnett became the right end, Flaherty was no longer an eligible receiver, Badgro became a back, and the left end was … Hein! This center-eligible play very nearly providedthe game’s first score, as Hein took a flip from Newman that traveled no more than six inches in the air and hid the ball under his jersey as he jogged downfield. But then he got nervous and began really to run. Hein was tackled short of the goal line, and instead Chicago broke out on top with a couple of Jack Manders field goals. In the second period Newman found Badgro for a ten-yard touchdown and the Giants led at the half, 7–6.
The game warmed up in the second half, as the Giants recorded another touchdown and Manders added a third field goal. Nagurski dusted off his jump pass from the indoor playoff completed a touchdown to Bill Karr. The score was still 16-14, Bears, when the third quarter came to an end with the Giants on the Chicago eight yard line. In this period alone, Newman completed 9 of 10 passes for 131 yards. To appreciate the magnitude of this aerial display, consider that for the entire season, fourteen games, he passed for only 69 yards per contest—and established a new pro record at that!
It is dawning upon those in attendance that this is a different sort of football.
On the first play of the final period, with the ball spotted at the right hashmark, the Giants lined up unbalanced to the right, a formation that seemed to indicate either a pass or an inside run. Yet, at the snap, Strong looped behind Newman, took a short pitch, and motored toward the left end. The play was slow to develop, however, and the right side of the Bear line closed off the outside. About to swallow a loss, Strong heaved an overhand lateral back across the field. Newman juggled the ball, then scrambled right, dodging tacklers while giving up ground to the 15. As the Bears focused their energies on corralling Newman, Strong drifted unaccompanied into the left portion of the end zone and waved for the ball. Newman heaved it nearly 50 yards across the field to Strong, who stumbled into the end zone. This sandlot hocus-pocus is pure inspiration, though in later years it will find its way into the Giants’ playbook (it will never work again). Strong provided the extra point, and the Giants went ahead 21-16.
The fans could scarcely believe what they were seeing.
Then, with most of the final period left to play, the Giants turned conservative in an effort to protect their lead. Time wound down until Strong shanked a punt that gave the Bears the ball barely inside New York territory. With less than two minutes remaining, Brumbaugh took the snap, faked a handoff to Grange, then slapped the ball into Nagurski’s belly. Bronko lowered his head, but instead of proceeding through the hole, he straightened up, leapt, and lobbed the ball to Hewitt some 10 yards downfield. Hewitt takes two steps, with Burnett on his heels. But before Hewitt could be thrown down he lateraled to Karr, who raced into the end zone. After the kick, the Bears led 23–21 with one minute to play.
Strong returned the kickoff to the Giants’ 40; a long field goal will win the game. Newman tried the center-eligible play that had bedeviled the Bears in the first period. It did not work.
Time for just one more desperation play. Returning to the single wing, Newman faked to Strong while Badgro and Flaherty ran patterns to the left side of the field. Then he flipped a little pass off to the right to halfback Burnett, who ran straight at Grange, playing some 20 yards off the line of scrimmage in a 1930s version of the “prevent” defense. Trailing alongside Burnett is Hein, undefended and ready to receive a lateral the moment Grange makes a move for Burnett. But Red looked in Burnett’s eyes, sensed his own dilemma and, with the instincts of a truly exceptional player, made what George Halas in years to come would describe as “the greatest defensive play I ever saw.” Grange tackled Burnett around the chest, pinning his arms so he could not flip the ball to Hein. Grange didn’t even try to bring Burnett down; he was content to lock him in a bear hug as Hein pled for the ball and time ran out. Whew!
The Bears have won the first NFL championship game, but the real victor is the league itself, which has shown the nation the brand of ball the pros can play. The college coaches will derisively call it basketball, but soon they will imitate it. The future of football has been glimpsed on this day.