May 302015
 
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Frank Gifford (16), Ray Beck (61), Charley Conerly (42), Alex Webster (29), 1956 New York Giants

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Beck (61), Charley Conerly (42), Alex Webster (29), 1956 New York Giants

By Larry Schmitt with contributions from Daniel Franck and Dr. Bruce Gilbert

The 1956 season was a watershed moment for football in New York. Filled with potent portent, the campaign proved to be the penultimate piece of the puzzle for the ultimate explosion of pro football’s popularity with the general public, the event horizon for which was crossed on December 28, 1956 when the Giants met the Bears for the NFL Championship. Almost three-and-a-half decades of groundwork created the proper conditions for the spontaneous and unpredictable happenings that captivated an audience and spawned the new national pastime – Football Sunday. Legions of fans would congregate for tailgate parties at their local stadiums or have the game of their favorite team broadcast right into their living room. Then fans would reconvene at Monday-morning quarterback meetings at their watercoolers on Monday.

The first step was short in distance but profound in stature. NFL Commissioner Bert Bell received an inquiry from a Texas-based oil syndicate about the availability of the league’s New York franchise. The Mara family would later suspect the offer came from Murchison brothers, who would one day start the Dallas Cowboy franchise. Bell notified Giants owner Tim Mara that a $1,000,000 offer had been made, contingent on the home games being staged at Yankee Stadium, rather than the Polo Grounds. Mara declined, but figured if his team was worth that much at Yankee Stadium that the team should make the short trip across the Harlem River to the larger and more prestigious venue.

Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds (circa 1954-57)

Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds (circa 1954-57)

The once venerable Polo Grounds, the Giants home for their first 31 seasons, had suffered from a lack of upkeep and was gradually falling into a state of disrepair. Although Mara’s team rarely enjoyed sellout crowds, the growth potential was also attractive. The Polo Grounds standard seating capacity was 55,000 while Yankee Stadium was just over 62,000. [These figures are for the standard baseball configurations. Both stadiums were often equipped with temporary seating along the sidelines for football games which increased ticket availability.]

The Polo Grounds had been the only home field the Giants had known to that point. The Giants had a tremendous run during their residence at the Polo Grounds, including an overall regular season record of 132-62-11 – which included one game in 1949 as the visiting team against the New York Bulldogs. They had won eight Eastern Division titles, hosted five post-season games and won two of their three NFL Championships there in 1934 and 1938. Although there was no post-season in 1927, the Giants won the pivotal game for the championship against the Chicago Bears 13-7 on November 27 at the Polo Grounds as well.

The announcement to move to Yankee Stadium was made on January 26 and was attended by Bell and Yankees General manager George M. Weiss. Bell emphasized the league’s need for stability of a franchise in New York as the Giants signed a 20-year lease. The future of the Polo Grounds was very uncertain; current speculation had the baseball Giants possibly moving to Minneapolis by 1962 when their lease expired. Charles Feeney, president of the baseball Giants, was also in attendance and said, “We had a long and pleasant association with the Football Giants; we are sorry that they’ve left the Polo Grounds but we wish them nothing but luck in the future.”

Wellington Mara, George Weiss, Jack Mara, and Bert Bell (January 27, 1956)

Wellington Mara, George Weiss, Jack Mara, and Bert Bell (January 27, 1956)

The Football Giants move to Yankee Stadium monumentally altered the perception of the team. While Owner Tim Mara emphasized that the team name would remain the Giants with the change in venue, the Giants went so far as to incorporate the structure into their official team logo. The quarterback who had towered among Manhattan’s skyscrapers since the mid 1930’s was now set inside Yankee Stadium. However, the Football Giants remained secondary in the consciousness of the metropolis’ citizenery until the close of baseball season in mid-October.

New York Giants early logos.

That is with good reason, as the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball Giants had won every World Series since 1948. In fact, five of those seven were “Subway Series” featuring the Yankees against either the Giants or Dodgers. The 1956 season would make it six of eight as the Yankees played the Dodgers again. While the Football Giants toiled in the shadow of baseball, pro football as a whole had made significant progress not only in closing the gap with college football in terms of popularity, in many markets (New York included) the professional game had already eclipsed it.

Exponential Exposure

While the NFL had made organizational and legislative changes to make the pro game more appealing to fans, there is no debate that the single biggest reason for the proliferation of pro football as the sport that dominates America’s landscape is the advent of television.

Radio was the first medium to extend pro football to the masses in the 1930’s. The first nationally-broadcast game via radio was the Thanksgiving Day contest between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions in 1934. The first television broadcast was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Eagles from Ebbets Field on October 22, 1939. The telecast was only available in New York and Schenectady. The 1940 Championship Game between the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins was the first title game nationally broadcast via radio.

Teams were left to their discretion with televising their games with their local television affiliates, and ultimately this would lead to a tremendous revenue inequality. But in the early days there were few televisions available and the medium was still very much experimental. Nobody at the time conceived the magnitude of its underlying potential. Most teams chose to broadcast their away games, but there were some exceptions. In 1946, the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams and the Chicago Bears each televised a handful of selected home games, while the Giants televised their entire home schedule (to approximately 8,000 TV sets), and their attendance at the Polo Grounds increased 18% over the prior year.

In 1948, Bell negotiated the first league-wide television contract, which was for select regular-season games and the NFL Championship Game. Television money now became an essential source of income for all teams. The 1948 Championship Game between Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Cardinals was the first televised championship, although it was limited to the two team’s local markets. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams became the first NFL team to televise all of its games – home and away. The unforeseen consequence of home attendance dropping was then first realized as there were significantly more television households in America. The NFL adopted the blackout rule in 1951 – no NFL games were broadcast to a market where an NFL game was being played on that same day. Bell reasoned, “You can’t give fans a game for free on TV and also expect them to pay to go to the ballpark.”

The 1951 season also saw the first coast-to-coast telecast of the NFL Championship Game, between the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams, by the Dumont Network. From 1950 through 1953, both ABC and Dumont broadcast weekly pro football highlight programs nationally. Most teams began programming their own weekly shows locally as a supplement to their games on Sunday. Chris Schenkel was the Giants play-by-play announcer for games, a role he would hold for over a decade. Steve Owen hosted the Giants first coaches’ show in New York, and became the franchise’s first familiar face.

During this time, it was noted that the attendance for college football and major league baseball was experiencing a state of decline, but pro football’s attendance was steadily ascending. The stability and prosperity sought by professional football’s founding fathers three decades earlier was now finally materializing. For the first time, public demand was coming to the NFL. The response from the league was the first prime-time, live sporting event series. Every Saturday night from 1953 through 1955 an NFL game was broadcast across America. Some college purists protested that the NFL was hurting their game, but Bell’s retort told how the tide had turned for good, “We’ve got no quarrel with the colleges. Our Saturday night and Sunday games don’t hurt their gate as much as they claim. We have their best interest at heart. They’re our farm system.”

In 1955, NBC purchased the rights to broadcast the NFL Championship Game and would keep it through the rest of the decade. In 1956 after DuMont went broke, CBS entered into a contract and became the first network to televise NFL games to selected television markets across the nation, as long as they did not conflict with the home team. The first nationally-televised Thanksgiving Day game took place between Green Bay and Detroit Lions that season. This tremendous increase in exposure not only introduced the NFL to a larger fan base, it gave the league a significant boost in stature. The most significant change was the cash brought in by the CBS contract. The prosperity seemed irresistible as stadium attendance continued to climb.

Gate receipts increased and sellouts became more common as community support became more robust. Pro football attendance increased to over 70% during the 1950’s. The average gate of 23,356 in 1950 grew to 43,356 in 1959, which represented 90% of the league’s capacity. Having surpassed college football, pro football was narrowing the gap on major league baseball as well. While legal issues on how the new television medium would be utilized were a behind-the-scenes distraction for several years, the problems would be worked out in the next decade.

The biggest leap in attendance occurred between 1956, with an average attendance of 35,356, and 1957, with 39,393. This was undoubtedly helped by the Giants successful season in a larger stadium. TV had an impact too. Head Coach Jim Lee Howell, who had been with New York as a player and coach since 1937, said, “We had a great game all the time, but it wasn’t exposed to many people outside of the cities where we played. Television has helped, it has made more people aware of the game.”

Final Touches and Finishing Business

The Giants had progressed each of the past two seasons under the new regime of Howell and his two brilliant assistant coaches, Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, and a bolstered roster after a dreadful collapse in 1953. Lombardi brought toughness and precision to the Giants offense while Landry infused ingenuity and innovation to the defense. Each brought a different style to coaching. Lombardi would pound a blackboard with his fist in frustration to make his point, while Landry would simply, coldly stare down the object of his dissatisfaction without raising his voice or gesturing with his arms.

Following a disappointing start in 1955, the teaching and drilling finally delivered returns during an impressive 5-1-1 run to finish the year. The loss and tie were to the league champion Browns, and the final win of the season was against the Western Conference champion Lions in Detroit, a team the Giants had always struggled against.

Despite the upturn in fortunes and the retirement of nemesis Otto Graham from Cleveland, most prognosticators were lukewarm about the prospects for the 1956 New York Giants. New York had gone nine seasons without an appearance in the championship game, their longest stretch since the league had split into divisions in 1933. Perhaps the only people optimistic about ending the championship drought were the Giants players and coaches themselves.

Training camp was a long and grueling affair for the 53 players who reported to compete for the 33 roster spots. Eight full weeks of training and conditioning at a high school field in Winooski, Vermont, that was interspersed with six dates traveling the country to play pre-season contests at neutral sights. The NFL was exploring new ground for potential expansion while also bringing games to fans who had only begun watching on television. Five of the Giants six game were played in non-NFL cities and they stretched coast-to-coast from Boston to Seattle and Portland, Oregon and south to Dallas and Memphis.

New York Giants - Baltimore Colts Game Program (August 20, 1956)

New York Giants – Baltimore Colts Game Program (August 20, 1956)

On offense, Lombardi honed his version of the T-Formation sweep. The Giants had a rugged and battle-tested offensive line, led by All-Pro Roosevelt Brown at left tackle, that emphasized athletic ability and coordination. New York’s philosophy was ball control and their bread-and-butter plays were 47 Power, which featured right halfback Frank Gifford, and 26 Power, which featured left halfback Alex Webster. They were essentially the same play directed to opposite sides of the line. On occasion, fullback Mel Triplett plunged straight into the line.

Vince Lombardi and Frank Gifford, New York Giants (1956)

Vince Lombardi and Frank Gifford (1956)

Offensive assistant Ed Kolman said, “We are playing the percentages in attempting to get modest but consistent gains on each run. If we gain three or four yards a play, we control the ball. And when we are controlling the ball, the other side can’t very well score.” Howell said, “It was almost like the old Single Wing days. What a difference it made in the Giants that year.”

Underscoring the Giants being a run-first team, they employed a unique two-quarterback system where Don Heinrich started the games and veteran Charlie Conerly came off the bench at some undetermined point depending on the ebb and flow of that particular game. Despite being the de facto backup quarterback, teammates and coaches held Conerly in the highest esteem. Gifford said, “I’ve never met a quarterback with less of an ego. Charlie called all his own plays and was the kind of quarterback who wanted information brought back to the huddle. He knew that no quarterback could see everything going on downfield. He respected his guys and made each of them part of the play-calling process.”

Sam Huff said, “Conerly was never a great pure passer, but he was a precise, control-type quarterback, methodical with a great feel for the game. He was a quiet guy too, and he was definitely a leader on that team. But he led out on the field, not with his mouth, and he was the toughest old bird you’ll ever see.” Howell said, “Charlie Conerly was our great quarterback, our meal ticket all the way through. He was a great competitor and admired by his teammates.”

When the ball was in the air, the primary targets were end Ken McAfee and flanker Kyle Rote, who were backed up by former starter Bob Schnelker. Occasionally the passes came from the arm of Gifford, who was deadly with the option pass. Gifford spent time under center during camp. According to Coach Howell, “He’s practicing strictly for experience. He does too much at halfback to change now.” Exhibiting his seemingly unbounded ability, Gifford also started the season as the Giants place kicker on field goals and point-afters. Strong-legged rookie punter Don Chandler handled the kickoff duties.

Nevertheless, with a blend of young talent and veteran leadership, the defense was New York’s dominant platoon. Strong defense had been the hallmark of the great Giants teams ever since Steve Owen took over as head coach in 1931. Landry, having played as an All Pro and coached under Owen, proved to be as least as innovative as his mentor, if not more so.

There still were different perceptions regarding offense versus defense in the NFL. The players who put points on the scoreboard were the well-paid desired commodities. The papers printed the names of the offensive starters only, even though the two-way 60-minute player was a diminishing breed. The Giants rosters typically were composed of two-thirds offensive players, with one-third devoted to defense. Most of the top draft choices, Travis Tidwell in 1950, Rote in 1951, Gifford in 1952, Joe Heap in 1955, and Henry Moore in 1956 were devoted to the offense. When Lombardi became the offensive coach he had other offensive assistants, Landry when he retired and became a full-time coach in 1956 was a defensive army of one in the locker room. And within that locker room the offense had the bigger meeting area while the defense met in the small, desolate and dank regions of the stadium.

What Landry had at his disposal were ways to effectuate change. To his players he used the disrespect to breed a collective sense of pride and purpose to be unleashed against the pampered and proper glamor boys of the offense. He also used the respect Wellington Mara had for him as well as the deference Jim Lee Howell gave him as permission to bring in a group of defensive players with the intellect and instincts for the game that Landry demanded.

Look at the moves the Giants made in the 1955-1956 offseason. Of the ten new players who made the Giants final roster, most were on defense. The middle rounds of the draft brought in Sam Huff, who had played offensive guard in college but was converted to linebacker, and defensive end Jim Katcavage who also played offensive end at Dayton. Both would be significant contributors to the “Coordinated” 4-3 defense Landry had been refining over the prior two seasons.

The predominant defense in the early and mid-1950’s was the 5-2 alignment. There were several variations, with the most popular being the Eagle Defense, popularized by Earle “Greasy” Neal in Philadelphia in the late 1940’s, and Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Defense. The defining characteristics of the two were the deployment of the linebackers. What they had in common were the middle guard (today known as the nose tackle) being nose-to-nose with the offensive center and the defensive ends lined up outside the offensive tackle and tight end. The Eagle Defense set the linebackers in the gaps between the defensive tackles and ends, which put tremendous pressure on the interior of the offensive line. The Oklahoma defense moved the defensive tackles out a gap and had the linebackers flanking the middle guard. Landry’s Coordinated Defense took the best parts of both of these and assimilated it into a 4-3 front with the backfield concepts of Owen’s Umbrella Defense (essentially what is today known as a Cover 2).

52 eagle oklahoma defenses

What really set New York apart from the competition was Landry’s obsessive analysis of opponent’s tendencies – “frequencies” as he termed it – regarding personal, formation, field position and down and distance. Every man on the Giants defense had a gap or zone responsibility that needed to be honored for the scheme to work. The days of whip-the-man-in-front-of-you-and-chase-the-ball were over.

The key position was what Landry called “the quarterback of the defense” or middle linebacker. The role required someone tough enough to handle the pounding of charging fullbacks and halfbacks on running plays, athletic enough to cover the middle zone and outside flats on passing plays, and intelligent enough to call the defense in the huddle, read the offense’s pre-snap keys, diagnose its intentions and call a shift or audible to get his unit in the proper position to defend.

Landry’s man was Huff, who spent time during a frustrating training camp playing on both lines. During the preseason he was moved permanently to the defensive platoon, and while regularly playing tackle, he occasionally received a few snaps at middle linebacker in relief of starter Ray Beck who struggled with an ankle injury.

Huff said of Landry and his concepts years later: “It was really simple when you think about it. We’d have the ‘Inside 4-3’, where the defensive tackle would shut off the middle and the linebackers would pursue to the outside, or we’d go to the ‘Outside 4-3’, where the tackle would angle outside and I would come up the middle and make a play in there, or catch the play from behind. All the years we played, that’s all I ever did. We got so good at it, it became almost second nature to everyone on the unit. That first year, Landry called the signals.”

43 inside outside defenses

Some of the teams that played the 5-2 defense would occasionally call on an athletic middle guard, such as Cleveland’s Bill Willis and Chicago’s Bill George, to line up in a two-point stance and drop into coverage after the snap. Landry’s 4-3 defense had Huff lined up at true linebacker depth, approximately three yards off of the line of scrimmage, where he could read the offensive backfield and determine where the play would most likely be going.

“Landry was one of the first people to set up his defenses against the strength of the formation,” Huff said. “Every offensive formation has its strength and weakness, and every defense has its strengths and weaknesses. So Tom would meticulously set up the defense to play against the strength of the offense. We would always line up in a 4-3 and give the offensive team the same look, but once the ball was snapped we had all kinds of looks, depending on what we keyed on. Before Landry, teams would line up in that 4-3 and just go after the ball. But Tom would tell us to watch for the way the backs lined up, to watch what side of the field the tight end and flanker were lined up on. Those were the keys to what the offense would do. So we would roll our zone defense to the strength of the formation and react accordingly when the ball was snapped. It really was a very simple concept, and when you watched it on film, it was a thing of beauty. Landry was a genius then and now.”

While Huff received the accolades, he did not do it alone. Three of the four members of the defensive line that kept Huff free to make plays were new to the Giants that summer. Defensive tackle Rosey Grier, who joined the Giants in 1955 along with safety Jimmy Patton, was the lone holdover. Powerful and athletic, Grier was capable of domination when motivated, but struggled with conditioning and was prone to freelancing. Rangy defensive end Jim Katcavage would develop into a pass rushing force, but began the year behind starter Walt Yowarski, and saw significant action at multiple positions as the season wore on. Fourth-year defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski was traded for from Pittsburgh where he had been a disappointment who clashed with his coaches. However, as someone who understood the Landry way of defense, he moved into the starting lineup immediately. He was a strong and dependable player who kept opposing linemen off of Huff. Sixth-year defensive end Andy Robustelli was received in a trade from Los Angeles for a first-round draft choice. He was now happy to be closer to his pregnant wife and three children. Robustelli would move into the starting lineup and remain there, not missing a game until his retirement after the 1964 season. Robustelli was a versatile two-way end and intelligent. He became the defensive leader, and was a clutch player capable of big performances in pressure situations.

1956 New York Giants

1956 New York Giants

The secondary was manned by Ed Hughes and Dick Nolan at the defensive halfback positions and Emlen Tunnell and Jimmy Patton as the safeties. A punishing tackler who possessed uncanny ball skills, Tunnell was already regarded as possibly the greatest safety and kick returner ever to play the game. Along with Conerly, Tunnell was the senior veteran in his ninth season with New York. Patton was fast and just coming into his own in his second season, and would share kick and punt return duties with Tunnell. Hughes, acquired from Los Angeles for a fourth-round pick, and Nolan selected in the fourth round out of Maryland in 1954, were both intelligent players whose intuition as to where a play was going would overcome a lack of foot speed. Their grasp of the game would translate into head coaching careers after their retirements.

The Long and Winding Road

The Giants six away-game preseason was followed up by a three-game road trip to open the regular campaign. Despite moving to a new home field an old problem followed the Football Giants. Yankee Stadium, like the Polo Grounds, was unavailable until baseball season had concluded. In their 31st season of play, the Football Giants had never opened a season at home, and normally played the first three to four weeks of each season away. Combined with camp opening in the middle of July, this meant the most of the players and coaches would be away from home two and a half months.

New York dealt the San Francisco 49ers their first season-opening loss in franchise history during a convincing 38-21 win at Kezar Stadium in front of 41,751 fans. The Giants struck early and often, scoring on their first three possessions: a 44-yard catch-and-run by Webster from Heinrich, a 59-yard rush by Gifford and a 17-yard placement by Gifford. The teams traded touchdowns in each of the remaining three quarters, with Triplett going over on plunges each time for New York. While the Giants defense surrendered 27 first downs and nearly 400 total yards in the 49ers come from behind effort, they were opportunistic, intercepting three Y.A. Tittle passes and recovering a fumble.

Dick Nolan (25), Jimmy Patton (20), Hugh McElhenney (39); New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (September 30, 1956)

Dick Nolan (25), Jimmy Patton (20), Hugh McElhenney (39); New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (September 30, 1956)

New York’s defense struggled the following week in front of 21,799 fans at Comiskey Park against the Chicago Cardinals. Halfback Ollie Matson had a big day rushing from the Wing-T formation and quarterback Lamar McHan completed five of seven passes for an impressive 136 yards. Harland Svare moved from this natural weak side linebacker position to middle linebacker for the injured Beck. The Giants led 13-7 but on the last play of the first half Dick “Night Trane” Lane stepped in front of Webster on a pass from Conerly in the flat and returned it 66 yards for a 14-13 lead and Chicago never looked back. Triplett had another three-touchdown game but it wasn’t enough as New York came up short in a 35-27 decision. Pat Summerall was five-for-five on point-after conversions for the Cardinals.

New York Giants at Chicago Cardinals Game Program (October 7, 1956)

New York Giants at Chicago Cardinals Game Program (October 7, 1956)

Notable was Chicago’s use of transistor radios to relay strategic observations from the press box to the field. One adjustment call by assistant coach Charlie Trippi in the third quarter led to a blocked Chandler punt that set up a Cardinal touchdown. The Giants defense again gave up big yardage, 356 total, but had six takeaways with four fumble recoveries and two interceptions.

The following week the Giants upset the Browns in Cleveland 21-9 in front of 60,042 fans. This game is renowned for Paul Brown having his play calls over a transistor intercepted by New York. Later in the week, Commissioner Bell outlawed the use of radios on the field during league games. Andy Robustelli had six sacks for losses totaling 60 yards as the New York defense smothered the Browns attack. Most significantly for the Giants, Beck started at middle linebacker but left early. Huff stepped into the position and everything seemed to fall into place as the Giants defense never looked better. [You can read more about this game here.]

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (October 14, 1956)

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (October 14, 1956)

Home Sweet Home

Four days before the grand opening of Giants football at Yankee Stadium, New York brought kicking specialist Ben Agajanian back to the team to relieve Gifford of some of his duties. The Giants staff acquiesced on Agajanian’s request to be allowed to return home to the West Coast during the early part of the week, and then rejoin the Giants on the Friday before games. The 38-year old Agajanian would handle field goal and point-after placements while Chandler retained kickoff responsibilities.

Anticipation was high following the win at Cleveland, and a crowd of approximately 40,000 was expected for the game. The 38-10 win over Pittsburgh was convincing and the local press jumped on the bandwagon, exclaiming superlatives and proclaiming intangibles. The New York Times game summary boasted: “The Giants needed about twenty minutes to make themselves comfortable in their new home the Yankee Stadium…Long before the final gun, the 48,108 spectators, marking the biggest crowd at a home-opener in Giants’ history, seemed convinced that the New Yorkers are headed for a ‘big’ year.”

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Game Program (October 21, 1956)

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Game Program (October 21, 1956)

The game started slowly for the Giants on offense. Once Conerly took over for Heinrich near the end of the first quarter, they became unstoppable. A 3-0 deficit became a 31-3 advantage by the end of the third quarter. New York totaled 455 yards on offense and did not turn the ball over. Conerly efficiently passed for three touchdowns and 208 yards on 14 completions in 23 attempts.

New York Times columnist Arthur Daley made an observation on the difference between the stadium’s two tenants: “The switch from baseball to football is never more apparent than in the dressing room before play begins. The Yankees laugh and joke and engage in horse play. The Giants look like men who are heading for a mass execution without any hope of a reprieve from the Governor.” Howell seemed indifferent regarding the change of venue, “Once the game started I was too busy to make comparisons.”

Gifford offered unique insight on a peculiarity of the playing surface years later: “I disliked one thing about Yankee Stadium: the field wasn’t level. If a football team was moving from the outfield toward the infield, which was elevated for drainage, the players were moving uphill. It was probably a difference of only a few inches, but, in my mind, it looked and felt like Mount Everest. On the other hand, it provided me with the perfect cop-out. Once, after I got tackled from behind after a long gain, I shamelessly told the press, ‘If I’d been running downhill rather than up, he never would have caught me.’ I was only half kidding.”

The following week the Giants defense was even more impressive while the offense sputtered. Part of the reason for the frustration was the return of an old friend – former franchise icon Steve Owen coached the Eagles defense, and he deployed a special 6-1-4 alignment to counter New York’s strengths. Despite his inability to adapt the Giants offense to the modern T-Formation during the latter part of his tenure, Owen had no peer when it came to concocting a scheme to neutralize an opposing offense’s strengths.

Vince Lombardi, New York Giants (October 28, 1956)

Vince Lombardi, New York Giants (October 28, 1956)

Philadelphia recovered two first half fumbles and lead 3-0 in the first quarter, but they were not able to seriously threaten the New York end zone as Landry’s Coordinated Defense wreaked sensational havoc. The New York Times game summary stated, “…the Giants had spectacular tackles such as Dick Modzelewski, Roosevelt Grier, Roosevelt Brown, Sam Huff and Walt Yowarski. These fellows never stopped charging. They spent as much time in the Philadelphia backfield as did the Eagles.”

Conerly entered the game in the second quarter with the score tied 3-3 and led the Giants to a 13-3 halftime advantage that was more than enough. The Giants defense held the Eagles to 132 total yards and intercepted two passes, and preserved the 20-3 win. New York moved into a first place tie with the Cardinals who were upset in Chicago by Washington 17-14.

Charlie Conerly (42), Mel Triplett (33), New York Giants (October 28, 1956)

Charlie Conerly (42), Mel Triplett (33), New York Giants (October 28, 1956)

The pattern for the Giants repeated itself, a sluggish and sometimes sloppy offense was just good enough to get by, while the defense was strong and at times dominant at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field in front of 31,240 spectators. A typical exchange in the first period saw Grier recover a fumble on the Steeler’s one-yard line, only to see Gifford fumble the ball back. New York held, but Agajanian missed a 42-yard field goal attempt. Pittsburgh outgained the Giants in total yards 255-229 but the Giants held the edge in takeaways 3-2, and pulled out a hard fought 17-14 victory to keep pace with the Cardinals who defeated Philadelphia 28-17. The two 5-1 teams would meet at Yankee Stadium the next week.

The hype for the game started early and continued throughout the week. Media coverage for the Football Giants hadn’t been this prominent or enthusiastic since the heyday of the rivalry with the Sammy Baugh-era Redskins a decade earlier. The fans were swept up the excitement, and brisk ticket sales raised hopes for a crowd upwards of 60,000. Howell declared the game a “must” for New York, given that the Giants had already lost to their division rivals, and the Cardinals had a more favorable remaining schedule. “We certainly are not in a position to be able to lose to Chicago on Sunday,” said Howell.

Tunnell spent two days in the hospital with an injured back, but was cleared to play later in the week, which was good news for Landry who needed all of his best players to stop the one player who had ripped through New York in Week Two. “Matson is a bread-and-butter back most coaches dream about. Most experts agree that he is the greatest runner in football today,” said Cardinals staff member Eddie McGuire. Former Giant great Mel Hein, who coached at Southern California, backed up the boast, “You can’t relax a second with him. Give him a foot and he’ll go all the way.”

The Apple of New York’s Eye

If the entire 91-year history of the Football Giants could be distilled down to a single moment in time where they captured the city’s heart and imagination and were finally accepted on an equal plane with their major league baseball constituents, it may very well be Sunday November 11, 1956.

Although the throng of 62,410 inside Yankee Stadium was just short of a sellout, it was the largest crowd to see the Giants play anywhere since 60,337 visited to the Polo Grounds on December 8, 1946 for a matchup against the Redskins, and was the second largest in Giants history after the 73,000 who came to see Red Grange at the Polo Grounds in 1925.

Landry devised a new defense to combat the Chicago Split-T attack that confounded New York in October. This time Huff’s responsibility was to key on Matson and determine where he would go and beat him to the point of attack. This strategy served as the prototype for the way New York would defend Cleveland and Jimmy Brown in future years.

Appropriately, the first points scored by New York came on a safety. Less than two minutes after the opening kickoff, Robustelli blocked Dave Mann’s punt and Katcavage fell on Mann with the ball in the end zone.

The game still hung in the balance through the second quarter. New York appeared to be ready to add to their 2-0 lead at the end of the first quarter until the Cardinals stopped them on downs at the one-yard line. After forcing a punt, Heinrich led the Giants to a touchdown and 9-0 advantage early in the second quarter. Then the Cardinals Lamar McHan led three successive advances into Giants territory that ultimately swung the balance of the contest. Each time Huff and the Giants defense clamped down on backs Matson and Johnnie Olszewski and forced field goal attempts. Summerall missed from 40 and 47 yards before connecting from 30. Conerly replaced Heinrich late in the period and the Giants led 9-3 at the half.

After passing New York to Chicago’s 20-yard line in the third quarter, Conerly was intercepted attempting to hit Rote in the end zone. The Giants defense forced a punt and Conerly engineered a 70-yard drive that was highlighted by a 48-yard completion to Gifford to the Cardinal’s 12-yard line. On the next play, Webster carried the distance for the touchdown and a 16-3 lead.

Following another Chicago punt, Conerly completed a 43-yard pass to Gifford to the Chicago 25-yard line. Following a few Triplett plunges, Conerly completed an 11-yard pass to Gifford in the end zone for a 23-3 advantage midway through the fourth quarter. With the outcome all but settled, the Cardinals put Jim Root in at quarterback, and he led Chicago down the field into Giants territory. Not only did the large crowd at Yankee Stadium not leave early, they zealously exhorted their passion. The bond between the fans and the Giants was galvanized in a chant that reverberates almost 60 years later. As the Cardinals advanced closer to the goal line, the New York supporters in the bleachers at the end of the field the Giants were defending attempted to impose their will and inspire the defense as their twelfth man: “DEE-FENSE…DEE-FENSE…”

Ultimately Matson scored on an 11-yard pass with 10 seconds remaining, but it didn’t matter. The 6-1 Giants were now in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Division and New York was officially a football crazed city. The defense deserved all of the adulation it received. Despite not forcing a turnover in the game (the first and only time all season) they held Matson to 43 yards on 13 carries and Chicago to 284 total yards. The Chicago Daily Tribune cited Robustelli and Grier for “excellent performances” and said Patton, Hughes and Tunnel “were stalwarts” in holding Cardinal passers to seven pass completions in 16 attempts.

This win, however, was a complete team effort. The New York Times game summary stated: “It was not only the Giants beat the team they had to beat that made so strong an impression. It was the manner in which they did it. The defense showed its usual strength and, for a change, the offense sparkled. Superb offensive blocking, missing the past two weeks, was a big factor in yesterday’s convincing triumph.” Gifford was the go-to man with 68 rushing yards and 116 receiving yards on six catches with a touchdown.

During this five-game win streak for New York, the defense surrendered just four touchdowns as the Giants outscored the opposition 119-46. Gifford said of the steak years later, “Halfway through the season we started beating teams easily, and with an intensity I’d never seen.” The normally stoic Howell boasted after the game, “This is the best Giants team in 10 years.”

An interesting consequence of two-platoon football, which was only in its seventh season of permanency, was how it divided teams into factions. Prior to that, teams were coached and practiced as a single unit. Now, not only were players identified and segregated in meetings as “offense” and “defense”, there were assistant coaches further specializing and refining their talents. The platoons ultimately assumed their own personalities. The fascination and appreciation New York fans showed for the defense was unique and unprecedented, but it clearly was the better and more consistent unit for the team, and seemed to get better with each game. The players noticed.

Gifford: “That year marked the start of the much-publicized rivalry between the offense and defense. While it never got mean, it did get intense. Probably the defense’s unprecedented fame had something to do with it. Never in the history of football had fans gone to a stadium primarily to root for a ‘DEE-fense’. The rivalry also extended to Lombardi and Landry, who, as the proud architects of their two units, in a sense created it. The one trait they shared was a fierce competitiveness, especially with each other.”

Huff: “Our defense was so good that many times we simply controlled the offense in practice, wouldn’t let them do anything. That used to get the offensive guys ticked off, and Lombardi would get so angry he’d keep the offense out on the field long after Landry had the let the defense go to the showers.”

Prosperity then Humility

If the Giants became lackadaisical in their preparation, let down their guard or simply believed they were as good as everybody told them they were, they can’t really be blamed. All of this media attention and praise was an entirely new phenomenon for them, and were unprepared to handle it. There is no other explanation for what happened the following Sunday when New York was thoroughly embarrassed in a poor effort against the 3-3 Redskins.

One single play perfectly described the woeful afternoon New York endured in front of 26,261 delighted Washingtonians. Leading 24-0 in the third quarter The Redskins brought their punt team out with a fourth-and-one on their own 36-yard line. After the snap, punter Sam Baker took off with the ball on a 22-yard advance through the completely fooled Giants coverage team to maintain possession. The drive ended with a field goal and ultimately New York lost 33-7.

Most disappointing was the inept performance from the defense, which surprisingly allowed 23 first downs and 231 yards rushing. Although three takeaways were forced by the Giants, their offense turned it over five times. Gifford and Katcavage were both injured and destined for overnight stays in the hospital with back and hip injuries, respectively. The only good news was the second place Cardinals were also upset on the road, having dropped a 14-7 decision at Pittsburgh.

The week of Thanksgiving was a busy one for New York, correcting what Howell described as “a bad day all around.” Gifford and Katcavage were both released and cleared to play. The Giants needed all 33 men on their roster for the 7-1 Chicago Bears, who held a half-game lead in the Western Division over 7-2 Detroit. While the Bears were a familiar opponent with their typically rugged outfit and powerful rushing attack, fronted by the league’s leading rusher Rick Caseras, they were different in that George Halas was not on the sidelines. He stepped aside as a courtesy to long-time associate Paddy Driscoll. Second-year signal caller Ed Brown was also leading the NFL in passing efficiency and end Harlon Hill was leading the NFL in receiving yards and yards per catch.

Chicago Bears at New York Giants Stadium Club Ticket (November 25, 1956)

Chicago Bears at New York Giants Stadium Club Ticket (November 25, 1956)

The boisterous crowd of 55,191 at Yankee Stadium seemed to quickly heal whatever it was that ailed New York the previous week. The three-headed rushing attack of Gifford, Webster and Triplett slashed through the Bears front behind precise blocking. The 10-0 halftime lead stretched to 17-0, and may have been on its way to becoming even wider had Heinrich’s pass not been intercepted by Ray Smith who returned it to the New York 16-yard line. The Giants defense held their ground and the Bears kicked a field goal to close the third quarter at 17-3.

Lombardi sent Conerly in to start the final quarter with orders to keep the ball on the ground. After discussing New York’s unique dual-quarterback system with Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maul (known as “The Old Pro”), Conerly became the first Giant on the cover on the magazine the week after this game, Conerly was the subject of a feature article in the December 3, 1956 issue. He said, “You don’t see much of a game when you’re in. You’re looking for the guy you’re going to pass to or the guy you’re making a hand-off to, and you don’t see much else. I guess I wouldn’t even recognize half the guys I play against in a game if I saw them on the street afterward. They’re just a blur when they are coming in at you, and you don’t look at them again until you come out of the huddle. Then they are uniforms in a defense and you don’t see faces, just the defense.”

Charlie Conerly, New York Giants (December 1956)

Charlie Conerly

Regarding sitting on the bench while Heinrich played Conerly said, “You don’t find any big weaknesses. It’s not like college football. Everyone is good and what you look for are habits a player develops. When you have been in the league a long time you get to know what a defensive halfback will let you do, for instance. One guy will let you throw underneath him—in front of him. The next guy covers pretty good to the outside but he doesn’t move as good to the inside, and you throw that way to him. Little things are what you look for. Like you size up the defense when you’re waiting to start the count and you see a safety man cheating a little bit toward an end you’ve got spread and you know he’s got to cover that end in the defense they have called, and he’s cheating over toward him because it will be hard for him to get there. So you call an automatic and hit the end quick.”

Conerly engineered a drive to the Chicago 22-yard line, alternating Gifford and Webster on sweeps, but Agajanian’s field goal attempt sailed wide. The teams quickly exchanged fumbles which set the Bears with the ball on their own 24-yard line with under nine minutes to play. Brown handed off to back Bill McColl, who swept toward right end, but pulled up and lofted a high arcing spiral deep down the sideline to the wide-open Hill. Giants defender Patton had released his coverage expecting the run, and the speedy Hill was unchallenged on his sprint to the end zone. George Blanda’s point-after made it a one-score game with 8:09 left in the game.

Conerly again directed a ground progression that moved the chains and took time off the clock. Chicago’s defense, which was the second-ranked unit in the league after New York’s, resisted and the Giants punted the ball back with just over two minutes remaining. Brown moved the Bears with a series of short passes along the boundaries, allowing Hill and McColl to step out of bounds to stop the clock and preserve time.

From Chicago’s own 44-yard line, Brown lofted a deep ball to Hill, who was this time covered closely by Patton. Hill tipped the ball up at the New York 5-yard line and began falling forward with Patton right behind him. Hill tipped the ball again, then cradled it in his arms as he fell across the goal line. The play was as spectacular in its artistry as it was stunning in its result. Blanda’s point-after deadlocked the game 17-17 for the final score.

“You can’t ask a boy to do much better than Patton did on that one,” Coach Howell said after the game, but he added: “Of course, he might have knocked it down or intercepted it if he hadn’t lost a step,” he said. “You just can’t make any mistakes.”

The philosophical Conerly had prophetically said to Maule before the game, “Mistakes cost you a lot more in pro ball. Back in college, a club could make a mistake and, like as not, it wouldn’t cost much. But a mistake against a pro club nearly always costs you, and usually it costs a touchdown. The mistakes in the line may not—you got the secondary to help out. But a mistake back in the secondary—that’s usually six points.”

New York’s defense mostly performed well in the game. They held Chicago’s rushing attack to a mere 12 yards and the Bears offense only generated 11 first downs and had four turnovers. The two big pass plays to Hill, who had seven catches for 195 yards and was compared favorable to Don Hutson in the New York Times after the game, in the fourth quarter were costly. The 6-2-1 Giants remained in first place ahead of the 6-3 Cardinals who beat Pittsburgh 38-27.

Lombardi cited this game later in his career as one that permanently changed his game management. He regretted his decision to have Conerly to keep the ball on the ground and play conservatively. He said, “From then on, no matter what the score was, I coached as if it was nothing-nothing.”

The Giants performance the next Sunday against Washington at Yankee Stadium in front of 46,351 fans was far from perfect, Howell commented that the contest which was filled with fumbles, miscues and missed field goals contained “more mistakes than a top game should have.” But Gifford came as close to perfection as anybody could. The star back rushed 19 times for 108 yards and caught six passes for 53 yards, and Gifford accounted for all four touchdowns. He opened the scoring with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Ken MacAfee, ran for two and caught a 14-yard scoring strike from Conerly.

Defensively the Giants returned to their mid-season form. While holding the Redskins to 75 passing yards, New York generated seven take-a-ways, including three fumble recoveries and four interceptions. Huff picked off two of the passes and the defense held Washington to only seven points. The final Washington score came on a fourth quarter 75-yard fumble return. New York’s 28-14 win ended the Redskins five-game win streak and essentially ended their hopes of catching the Giants in the division race at 5-4. The 7-2-1 Giants Eastern Division lead opened to a game and a half over the 6-4 Cardinals when the Cardinals lost to the Packers 24-21.

Over 45,000 fans were expected for Cleveland’s annual visit to New York, but an unusually weak Browns team combined with rain, snow and cold made many fans decide it would be better to stay home and listen to the game over the radio. The 27,707 who braved the elements and hoped to personally witness the Giants clinch their first divisional title in 10 years went home chilled and disappointed. The New York Times game summary even questioned New York’s championship mettle, “The impression yesterday was that the Giants will have to show marked improvement over their latest showing. Against Paul Brown’s energetic and spirited aggregation the New Yorker’s were a do-nothing, go-nowhere outfit. They seemed sluggish on defense and immobile on offense.”

Frank Gifford, New York Giants (December 9, 1956)

Frank Gifford, New York Giants (December 9, 1956)

A 63-yard drive that culminated in a game-tying Conerly-to-Gifford scoring pass early in the second quarter seemed to give New York life. The next possession for the Giants was a 50-yard advance into Browns territory, but Don Doll intercepted Conerly to squelch not only a scoring opportunity, but seemingly the Giants spirits for good. They never threatened again and Cleveland rolled to a surprisingly easy 24-7 win. Gifford caught six more passes and his running season total of 49 already surpassed the previous franchise mark of 47 set by Bill Swiacki in 1949.

Although the Cardinals lost to the Bears 10-3, Washington defeated Philadelphia 19-17 and had two games to play, giving them an outside chance at the title should New York and Chicago both lose their final games. However, the Giants controlled their own destiny. A win or tie at Philadelphia would wrap up the Eastern Division, no questions asked. The Giants closed out their six-game home schedule with an impressive total attendance of 280,727, far ahead of their 1955 six-game docket that totaled 163,787. Division title or not, pro football had taken a significant advance forward in New Yorker awareness.

Bad weather plagued the Northeast all week, and although Howell did not use the sloppy field conditions for the disappointing loss to Cleveland, he was upfront about his desire for improved conditions (particularly for the offense) against the Eagles: “We are a team that accomplishes more because of quickness rather than brute strength, but against the Browns we were not quick at all. We never really got started and I believe the condition of the field was an important factor. I hope we have a dry field on Saturday when we wind up against the Eagles.” Howell and the Giants spent part of the week practicing across the street at Macombs Dam Park while the Yankee Stadium field was covered by a tarp to preserve it for the potential championship game.

The Connie Mack Stadium playing surface was in good condition at game time and the Giants performance was everything their coach had hoped for. The New York Times game summary stated: “Superior offensive blocking, more certain tackling, and a clearly obvious advantage in overall speed all belonged to the Giants.” New York attempted only 11 passes and chose instead to ride the big legs of Webster, who rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Gifford also contributed 81 yards on 16 carries and Triplett 72 yards on 14 carries. The Giants led 14-0 at the half and 21-0 after three quarters. The defense was magnificent, keeping Philadelphia contained on their own side of the 50-yard line for the first 42 minutes, and barely missed its bid for its first shut out of the season when Adrian Burke completed a touchdown pass to Bobby Walston with 1:08 remaining. The Giants won 21-7.

Early Accolades

The Giants had two weeks to celebrate their first Eastern Conference title since 1946 as the NFL regular-season schedule had yet to be completed for other teams. The Giants would face an old familiar foe in the championship game: the Chicago Bears, who had also beaten the Giants in the 1946 title game. The Bears had clinched the Western conference crown in a winner-take-all brawl against Detroit. Chicago won 38-21 in a violent, fight-filled game that saw hundreds of Wrigley Field fans became part of the mayhem and charge the field during a fight between the two teams. Dozens of Chicago police officers desperately struggled to restore order before a full riot ensued.

Seven Giants were chosen to represent the 31-man Eastern Conference roster in the Pro Bowl: Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Roosevelt Brown and Kyle Rote on offense and Andy Robustelli, Rosie Grier and Emlen Tunnell on defense. The All-Pro team featured five Giants: Gifford, Brown, Grier, Robustelli and Tunnell.

In the overall rankings, the Giants offense was mostly in the middle of the pack in the 12-team league. The best way to describe them would be efficient, if occasionally inconsistent. Lombardi’s unit excelled in rushing the football and not making negative plays. They ground out the third-most yards in the league (Gifford and Webster both finished in the top 10 individually in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns) and surrendered the fewest sacks and turned the ball over the least. Overall, the New York offense finished at or below average in scoring (6th), total yards (7th) and passing yards (8th)

Landry’s defense was first in fewest total yards allowed, fewest yards per rush, most quarterback sacks, most takeaways and gave up the fourth fewest points. They would need to be at their best in the championship game against Chicago, who had the league’s top rusher in Caseras (1,128 yards) and most explosive receiver in Hill (1,128 yards on 47 receptions for a 24 yards per catch average and 11 touchdowns). Hill was a nightmare for the Giants in the November game at Yankee Stadium.

Howell had the Giants spend the first of their two weeks off in the film room, specifically watching the 17-17 game, to clean up what were considered correctable errors with technique and recognition. “It’s a treat to have two weeks to get ready for a game. When you’re playing every Sunday you don’t have a chance to put much new stuff in. There are a few new wrinkles we’ve had in mind for some time and we’re taking advantage of this opportunity to go over them.” Bears coach Driscoll, who also had two weeks to prepare, was confident with his squad’s state: “The boys are in top physical shape and their mental attitude is up. There are no injuries and no signs of staleness.”

Gifford received the NFL’s “Player of the Year” award on the NFL’s final Sunday. He was the first player in history to finish in the top five in both rushing (819 yards, 5.2 yards per attempt) and receiving (51 receptions for 603 yards) and was fifth overall in all-purpose yards. He was 10th in the NFL is scoring with nine total touchdowns (five rushing, four receiving), two field goals and one point-after. He also threw two touchdown passes.

The interest in the game was unprecedented. Articles appeared in the local newspapers daily, ranging from practice updates, player profiles, to prospective strategies the two teams might feature. This served to educate the new audience to the game. Earlier in December, former Notre Dame great and former Bear Johnny Lujack wrote a lengthy feature article in The New York Times that praised the merits of the professional game over the college version. Only a decade earlier, such a public declaration would have been retorted as heresy or dismissed as nonsense.

The public a whole, however, not only was watching the pro football games on television, they were going to stadiums in record numbers. The 1956 season was the fifth consecutive that the league had set a new record at the gate. The NFL’s paid attendance in 1956 was 5,551,623, a 1.17% increase over the 1955 gate. In an interview in The Chicago Daily Tribune, Commissioner Bell said of the NFL’s spike in popularity, “Ten years ago some of our critics wailed that the pro players didn’t try. Now, it seems, the complaint is that the boys are trying too hard.” He also stated that liberalizing the passing game and free substitution were the biggest factors in the pro game attracting more fans.

New York Giants - Chicago Bears 1956 NFL Championship Ticket Stub

New York Giants – Chicago Bears 1956 NFL Championship Ticket Stub

Despite rainy weather the week leading up to the game and concerns over possible poor field conditions, ticket sales were brisk and a sellout was expected. The gross receipts for the game hinted at the age of prosperity the NFL had entered. The winners and losers shares would be the highest ever to that point in time. The wining team members would end up taking home $3,779.19 each and the losing team $2,485.16 each. The most significant reason for this was the NBC contract for the right to the national broadcast. The last time the Giants and Bears met for the championship in New York in 1946, the game was held in front of a robust crowd of 58,346 – which would be slightly larger than the crowd that would be at Yankee Stadium for this game. Yet, the winners and losers shares were $1,975.82 and $1,295.57, respectively. Clearly, television would be a significant factor in determining the course pro football would follow in the future.

The players were aware of this, and the day before the game they formally announced a project that had been surreptitiously in the works for three years – the formation of a players union. Their initial declaration included a list of six demands, which in retrospect were modest and not unreasonable: (1) league recognition of the union; (2) compensation, including per diem, for attending training camps; (3) injury compensation; (4) $5,000 minimum player salaries; (5) a pension program; and (6) clubs – not players – paying for equipment. Rote was the representative for the Giants, and eleven of the twelve teams were accounted for, excepting the Bears whose players declined recognition either out of fear or respect for Halas, a founding member of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920.

The Bears were considered the favorite to end the championship drought for the two old rivals. Chicago last won a championship in the 1946 game against the Giants and New York hadn’t won since 1938.

The Big One

Not unlike the first championship meeting between the Giants and Bears in New York in 1934, the weather turned extremely cold during the overnight and the field was completely frozen. The overnight temperatures plummeted during the night and was 26 degrees at game time and winds reached 30 miles per hour. Halas’ son-in-law Ed McCaskey said, “It was the coldest I had been in my whole life. We attended `My Fair Lady’ the night before, and as we left the theater, an ice storm set in. The next day, the field was a mess.”

Recalling the 1934 championship game which took place under similar circumstances, Robustelli had 48 pairs of brand new basketball sneakers delivered to Yankee Stadium that morning. Howell had several players try them out on the field alongside players wearing cleats. The players with the sneakers demonstrated superior traction on the slick surface while the players in cleats slipped and fell. The decision on equipment was easy.

Chicago had brought along sneakers as well, but they were of an earlier vintage. George Connor recalled, “We had poor sneakers with little rubber cleats. I know they were old: one pair had Bronko Nagurski’s number 3 painted on the heel. I guess they were the same ones Halas ordered after the 1934 sneakers game … The rubber was starting to crack, they were so old.“ Bears coach Driscoll said, “Those sneakers were better than ours. Their soles were thicker than our soles. This helped their footing greatly.”

Gene Filipski (40), New York Giants (December 30, 1956)

Gene Filipski (40), New York Giants (December 30, 1956)

The difference in footwear was apparent from the very start. Chicago kicked off and Gene Filipski returned the ball 54 yards giving New York possession in Bears territory. Four plays later Triplett rumbled through a huge hole in the line, trucked would-be tacklers and bowled over an official on his way to a 17-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead. Lombardi said, “That run by Gene gave the team its opening spark. From then on, it was a solid effort from each and every man.”

Mel Triplett running for a touchdown; Chicago Bears at New York Giants, December 30, 1956 (1956 NFL Championship)

Mel Triplett running for a touchdown; Chicago Bears at New York Giants, December 30, 1956 (1956 NFL Championship)

New York’s defense made the next contribution when Robustelli recovered a loose ball on a botched exchange between Brown and Bobby Watkins on the Chicago 15-yard line. Three rushes netted four yards and Agajanian booted a 17-yard field goal. After ten total plays from scrimmage, New York led 10-0.

The game summaries from the major newspapers of both cities described the one-sided affair:

  • Chicago Daily Tribune: “The mighty Chicago Bears came into a cavernous deep freeze called Yankee Stadium here today and left as football’s greatest enigma, humiliated by the New York Giants 47 to 7 in the National league’s 24th annual championship playoff.”
  • New York Times: “The manner in which the Giants ran, passed, kicked, scored and defended against the Western Conference rulers shocked most of the 58,826 half-frozen fans watching the playoff game.”

Patton intercepted Brown on an overthrow of Hill that led to another Agajanian field goal. The score was 13-0 as Conerly took over for Heinrich at the end of the first quarter. Conerly hit Webster on a 24-yard gain to set up a three-yard plunge by the big back for a 20-0 lead before the second quarter was three minutes old. The relentless Giants were dominating in all three phases of the game and the Yankee Stadium crowd was delirious.

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), New York Giants, 1956 NFL Championship Game (December 30, 1956)

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), New York Giants, 1956 NFL Championship Game (December 30, 1956)

Chicago had one break that gave them a chance to stymie New York’s onslaught and get back into the game. The Giants defense held the Bears, but Tunnell fumbled the punt and Chicago recovered at the Giants 24-yard line. Four plays later Caseras ran for a touchdown to cut the lead to 20-7. However, Conerly guided another long advance that closed with a Webster one-yard plunge for a score.

J.C. Caroline mishandled the ensuing kickoff and Chicago began the possession at their 10-yard line. New York’s defense threw the Bears for losses on three consecutive plays, setting up a punt from the two-yard line as Yankee Stadium roared: “DEE-FENSE…DEE-FENSE…” Ray Beck sliced through the line and blocked Brown’s punt and rookie back Henry Moore fell on the ball in the end zone. The Giants were in command 34-7 at halftime.

The Bears replaced Brown with Blanda and switched from the T-Formation to the Short Punt formation where Blanda essentially operated as a tailback. The results were the same, New York’s defense was stifling and their offense ground away yardage with their three backs. Conerly attempted only 10 passes but was deadly accurate, completing seven for 195 yards and two touchdowns. The Chicago passers combined for 20-of-47 for 237 yards and two interceptions.

Alex Webster (29), Dick Yelvington (72), 1956 NFL Championship Game

Alex Webster (29), Dick Yelvington (72), 1956 NFL Championship Game

The Giants added 10 more second-half points, and several hundred fans who remained in the frigid stadium stormed the frozen field and tore down the goal posts, celebrating the emphatic 47-7 victory and the Giants first championship in 18 years.

Caseras told the Chicago Daily Tribune, “They smashed us from start to finish…The Giants play that winning brand of football: hitting you hard on one play then hitting you harder on the next. We were really confident when we started, but they got ahead so quickly, and did it so easily, we couldn’t play our regular game. We were outplayed, terrifically outplayed.”

Howell said before the start of the game that he was concerned that his team was too relaxed, but that concern was unwarranted once the game started, “They just wanted to play – they wanted the championship.”

Chicago quarterback Brown said the Bears were too tight and possibly exhausted, “We were over-trained. We only had one day off—Christmas Day—preparing for this. What the hell—the Giants got five days off. We were just too tied up.”

Whether the differing philosophies in preparation were at the root of the outcome did not matter to Commissioner Bell who said, “In all the time I’ve been watching pro football, I’ve never seen the Giants as hot as they were today.”

The End of the Beginning

The 1956 Giants not only brought pro football to the forefront of the greater New York area, but the entire NFL came along for the ride. Soon pro football players transcended the confined orbit of the sporting world and crossed over to mainstream America.

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), 1956 NFL Championship Game

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), 1956 NFL Championship Game

Gifford recollected, “I’ll always believe that that game (the 1956 NFL Championship) was the key to the development of the NFL today. People forget what the NFL was like in those days. It was not America’s number one sport. But once we played the game, we became heroes in New York. The thing just grew from there.”

The names of the Giants players from this era are still remembered fondly nearly 60 years later, even by fans who are too young to have seen them play, because they are still featured in archival footage from NFL Films. Five players from the 1956 Giants are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Tunnell (1967), Robustelli (1971), Brown (1975), Gifford (1977) and Huff (1982). One other remains on the outside looking in. “Charlie is the best player who is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” late owner Wellington Mara said of Conerly on many occasions. “He has better numbers than some quarterbacks who are there.”

Bill Svoboda (30), Emlen Tunnell (middle), Alex Webster (29); New York Giants, (December 30, 1956)

Bill Svoboda (30), Emlen Tunnell (middle), Alex Webster (29); (December 30, 1956)

Conerly being on the cover of Sports Illustrated in December 1956 was a big recognition at the time, but paled in comparison to Sam Huff being on the cover of Time Magazine in November 1959. Players were being so wholeheartedly embraced by fans that Madison Avenue took notice and exploited the public’s new love for football. The NFL’s new heroes were paid handsomely to endorse products and services nationwide. In New York, Rote hosted a weekly radio program and Gifford televised the sports segment on local news during the offseason. In 1960, Huff became a national sensation when he was featured in a 30-minute documentary hosted by Walter Cronkite titled “The Violent World of Sam Huff.”

More immediate dividends were reaped by the Giants who sold out every home game for the 1957 season, the first time that ever happened. A cottage industry erupted around the Tri-State area as local hotels and restaurants advertised Giants games on television outside the 75-mile radius of the blackout zone. New Yorkers began traveling to eastern Long Island and southern Connecticut to pick up the broadcasts from the Hartford affiliates and south New Jersey to pick up the Philadelphia affiliates.

New York Giants 1956 NFL Championship Ring (Ben Agajanian)

New York Giants 1956 NFL Championship Ring

The public’s insatiable appetite seemed ready to be sated following the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Giants and Baltimore. The thrilling game captured the imagination of not only the 64,185 fans inside Yankee Stadium, but the record 42 million fans nationwide who watched the telecast on NBC.

Only months after that game, a group of entrepreneurs, headed by Lamar Hunt, approached the NFL about expansion and inclusion into the burgeoning league. After being rebuffed several times, the group started their own league, the fifth to challenge the NFL since 1926 and the fourth one to be called the American Football League. This one, however, had staying power and helped continue the pro game’s evolution by sparking the creation of the Super Bowl in January 1967 and NFL-AFL merger in 1970.


SOURCES:

“Pro Football – Parasite or Paragon?”
George Cullicott,  Sep. 1956, Sports Review Football 1956

“The Titans Were Tied”
Tex Maule, Dec. 3, 1956, Sports Illustrated

“Notes On A Gelid Afternoon”
Tex Maule, Jan. 7, 1957, Sports Illustrated

New York Football Giants 1957 Press, Radio and Television Guide
Robert Daley, 1957, New York Football Giants, Inc.

National Football League 1957 Records and Rules Manual
Joseph T. Labrum, 1957, The National Football League

New York Giants
Don Smith, 1960, Coward-McCann Sports Library

The Giants of New York: The History Of Professional Football’s Most Fabulous Dynasty
Barry Gottehrer, 1963, Putnam

The First 50 Seasons
Bob Oates Jr., 1969, Ridge Press

The Encyclopedia Of Football – 16th Revised Edition
Roger Treat, Suzanne Treat, Pete Palmer, 1979, A. S. Barnes & Co.

Illustrated History of the New York Giants: From The Polo Grounds To Super Bowl XXI
Richard Whittingham, 1987, Harper Collins

Tuff Stuff
Sam Huff, 1988, St. Martins Press

The Whole Ten Yards
Frank Gifford with Harry Waters, 1993, Giff & Golda Productions

From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League 1920-1967
Craig R. Cowenen, 2005, The University of Tennessee Press

Historical New York Times Searchable Archive (via ProQuest)

Chicago Tribune

Google News Historical Archive

The Pittsburgh Press

Mar 022015
 
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Bo Molenda (23), Dale Burnett (18), Ken Strong (50), Harry Newman (12); 1933 New York Giants

Bo Molenda (23), Dale Burnett (18), Ken Strong (50), Harry Newman (12); 1933 New York Giants – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The 1933 season is the most significant in the National Football League’s early history. While being mired in the depths of the Great Depression, many significant changes were made during the offseason that ensured not only the fledgling league’s survival, but allowed it to prosper and ultimately overtake college football and baseball as the country’s first choice for sporting entertainment. This marked the birth of the modern NFL, and planted the seed that would blossom on December 28, 1958 at Yankee Stadium when the Giants and Baltimore Colts captivated a national television audience in what has become known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

The first major decision was for the league to create its own standard of play. Since the league’s inception in 1920, the rules governing competition were legislated by college football, which had hamstrung the NFL’s growth by preventing the pro game from differentiating itself from the college game. With its own set of rules ready for 1933, the NFL began to establish its own identity and attract new fans with a different style of play. The main intent was to create more excitement on offense and increase scoring.

The Impetus for Innovation

The catalyst for this unprecedented change was spontaneous improvisation. The NFL had no firmly-established tie-breaking procedure in place at the close of the 1932 regular season. The 6-1-6 Chicago Bears and 6-1-4 Portsmouth Spartans finished officially tied for first place, as ties were not factored into winning percentages at the time. Their 6-1 equated as a 0.857 winning percentage, and during the season the two had played one another to 13-13 and 7-7 ties. There had been too many disputed championships in the 1920’s and the owners did not desire another.

For the first time, a playoff game was arranged to decide who would be declared champion. A blizzard followed by subzero temperatures forced the game to hastily be shifted indoors from Wrigley Field to Chicago Stadium, which had a considerably smaller playing surface. Some of the special ground rules put in place for the game gave a glimpse into the future of football, as well as a controversy that arose late in the game.

The confined space only allowed for a field that was 80 yards in length and approximately 50 yards in width, with the sidelines nearly abutted to the grandstands. The actual playing field was 69-yards from goal line to goal line. The end zones were smaller than regulation and rounded along the end line to fit within the contours of the field that was shaped like a hockey rink. As a precaution, inbounds markers were placed on the field to allow play to begin more toward the center of the field instead of right on the sideline following an out-of-bounds play. This proved to be a revelation, as fewer downs were wasted attempting to center the ball, and also allowed for more productive offensive plays with more of the field was available to use. The goal posts were also moved up from the end line to the goal line.

The game was tied 0-0 five minutes into the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-goal from the Spartans two-yard line, Chicago fullback Bronko Nagurski charged toward the line, but abruptly pulled up and lofted a pass into the hands of teammate Red Grange for a touchdown. Portsmouth head coach Potsy Clark immediately stormed the field in protest, claiming Nagurski was not the required five yards behind the line of scrimmage when he passed the ball forward. Referee Bobby Cahn upheld the ruling and the touchdown stood. The Bears held on for a 9-0 victory and were professional football’s champions for 1932.

The NFL declared it would no longer strictly adhere to the college rule book and forged its own code on February 25, 1933. Although the professional parameters were still strongly rooted to the college game, the differences were significant and would ultimately prove to stimulate a more open and entertaining brand of football. Higher scoring games also decreased the likelihood of tie games, a direct response to the fact that the participating teams in the 1932 playoff participated in a total of 10 tie contests.

  • Forward passes were allowed anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, rather than five yards back (the penalty for which had been loss of possession.)
  • The goalposts were moved to the goal line to make field goals a more attractive option.
  • In-bound lines were added to the field to keep plays from being wasted merely to center the ball on the field.
  • The ball carrier was not ruled down unless contacted by a defender.

Structural differentiation occurred by borrowing ideas from major league baseball. Boston Redskins owner George Preston Marshall and Chicago Bears owner George Halas championed the idea of splitting the NFL into Eastern and Western divisions and having the two first-place teams meet in what they conceived as a “World Series of Football.” Splitting into divisions created “pennant races” that fans would follow, stimulating interest in more cities around the league as more teams had the opportunity to qualify for the championship. The annual championship game would also once-and-forever eliminate disputed championships. Everything would be settled on the field. This reorganization was officially implemented on July 8, 1933, and the site of the championship was predetermined on a rotating basis. The Western Division champion would host the game in 1933 and all subsequent odd-numbered years while the Eastern champion would host in 1934 and all further even-numbered years. This system remained unchanged until expansion caused the league to realign into four divisions in 1967.

The NFL expanded to ten teams in 1933, up from its all-time low of eight in 1932. The placement of the new franchises was significant. Beginning in the late 1920’s, NFL President Joe Carr mandated that the league migrate from large towns and small cities into large cities, especially ones that had a major league baseball team. This helped elevate the NFL’s image, as many pro football teams would share stadiums with their baseball counterparts.

The Staten Island Stapes withdrew from the NFL after the 1932 season (but would continue as an independent team and occasionally play NFL teams in exhibition matches.) Three new franchises received league charters and were based in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The number of franchises that had competed at least one season in the APFA/NFL was now at 51 in the circuit’s 14th season. The realignment featuring two five-team divisions operating from large metropolitan areas gave the NFL much needed stability. The days of impermanent and transient franchises were drawing to a close.

Player statistics were officially recorded by the league for the first time in 1932. Weekly postings of league leaders were distributed to the press and printed in newspapers beginning in 1933. This gave fans an interactive experience, allowing them to follow their favorite players as they would during baseball season by tracking the league-leaders in batting average and ERA.

Reload

The Giants themselves also underwent a transformation prior to the season, having endured back-to-back disappointing seasons as the core of the team that had challenged for the league title in 1929 and 1930 got old.

The core of New York’s team was its perennially-powerful line. Ray Flaherty and Red Badgro were the best pair of ends in pro football. The interior line was anchored by Len Grant, Butch Gibson, Mel Hein, Potsy Jones and Bill Owen. The infusion of new blood took place in the backfield, with fullback Bo Molenda, tailback Harry Newman and halfback Ken Strong, the latter signing with the Giants after the Staten Island Stapes left the league.

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1933)

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1933)

The Giants struggled to score points in 1932 after Benny Friedman departed for Brooklyn. The new tailback was chosen for his pedigree. Newman had played behind Friedman while at Michigan in college. The hope was his time observing Friedman playing and practicing alongside him would translate into production on the field. Newman could run, pass and kick almost as well as Friedman, and the Giants billed him as the team’s marquis star. Newman said, “’It was Benny who taught me how to pass. I think I may have thrown two passes in high school. Benny felt if I was going to make it to the top in college, I needed to be a good passer as well as a runner.”

Following four weeks of drills and practice in Pompton Lakes, NJ and exhibition games versus the All-Long Island Stars and Patterson Night Hawks, the 1933 New York Football Giants opened the season with a five-game, three-week road trip. The league opener was a Wednesday-night contest, pitting the Giants against the Pittsburgh Pirates in their inaugural football game.

The Pittsburgh Press said Newman “stole the show” and “did everything with the ball but swallow it,” while comparing him to baseball pitching great Carl Hubbell. The crowd of 25,000 remained enthusiastic, despite the Giants dominant performance. Newman scored on a 5-yard rush and threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Dale Burnett. Perhaps most pleasing to Coach Steve Owen, however, was Newman’s successful 39-yard field goal, as no New York kicker successfully made a field goal during the entire 1932 season. Strong also had a good all-around game for the Giants, scoring on an interception return and two point-afters. The Pirates only score came on a safety when the ball skittered though the end zone in the third quarter when Strong’s punt was blocked. The Giants won 23-2.

New York was overwhelmed by the Spartans and 90-degree temperatures four days later in Portsmouth. Tailback Glenn Presnell moved the Spartans offense up and down the field on New York in front of 7,000 fans. Portsmouth had the game well in hand, 17-0 in the fourth quarter, when the Giants avoided a shutout with an unusual play. Newman called his own number on a rush from the Spartans 45-yard line, ran through the line and into the secondary. He fumbled the ball when hit from behind, but teammate Red Badgro was nearby to scoop the loose ball at the 20-yard line and take it the rest of the way for the touchdown. Strong added the point-after from placement and the final score was 17-7. The busy road trip continued with an exhibition contest at the Indianapolis Indians on Wednesday before a league contest versus Green Bay at Milwaukee.

Milwaukee fans had been eager to see the Packers in person, and the game against the Giants was very much anticipated as the two teams had battled one another for league supremacy in 1929 and 1930. Instead they witnessed 60 full minutes of undisciplined execution combined with sloppy ball handling. Strong and Newman had productive game for New York, but The Milwaukee Journal provided a descriptive summary of the Wisconsin team’s performance: “Twelve thousand fans laid it on the line hoping to see the Packers and Giants artistically maul each other around in a National League football game at Borchert Field Sunday afternoon, and 12,000 fans, after seeing the exhibition, quietly left the park gently holding their noses between the forefinger and thumb.”

A first quarter Green Bay fumble led to an impressive 39-yard placement field goal by Strong from a wide angle into a brisk wind. In the second quarter, Hein intercepted a pass at the Packer 25-yard line, and Newman connected with Burnett on a 19-yard touchdown pass shortly thereafter for a 10-0 New York lead. Green Bay scored late in the fourth quarter to make the final 10-7 score look respectable, but those who saw it knew better. The Milwaukee Journal detailed “the Bay’s” comedy of errors: “It wasn’t that the Packers lost, they have lost before. They lost to the Bears last Sunday but still looked like a football team. It was that they fumbled, missed signals, fumbled, missed tackles, fumbled, passed like the Apache A.C. Indians, fumbled, checked signals until they finally resorted to a huddle, fumbled, passed wildly from center, fumbled, used bad judgment in spots, fumbled – and then used butter fingers on the ball some more. It was a sad, sad exhibition all around.”

New York headed back to the East Coast for one last road game in Boston. The newly renamed Redskins were building themselves into a rugged outfit. They were strong on the line of scrimmage and had one of the great young backs in the league in Cliff Battles. After jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, Boston gained control of the tempo and pounded out long drives for a 21-7 lead in the third quarter. New York fought back. Stu Clancy connected with Flaherty on a 35-yard aerial, and then finished the drive with a 15-yard rush into the end zone. However, Glenn “Turk” Edwards pierced the line and blocked Newman’s point-after attempt, leaving New York behind 21-13.

New York Giants at Boston Redskins (October 8, 1933)

New York Giants at Boston Redskins (October 8, 1933)

Late in the fourth quarter, the Giants had the ball on their 20-yard line and were desperate for a quick score. Newman took the snap from center, sprinted toward the edge and flipped a lateral toward a teammate who missed the ball. Newman retrieved the ball on the 10-yard line, reversed field, and traversed the distance for an 80-yard touchdown. His point-after was good, bringing the score to 21-20. Newman’s long run gave him 108 yards for the contest, and earned him the distinction of being the first officially recognized 100-yard rusher in franchise history. Unfortunately for the Giants, this was not the only accolade of the day. The Redskins were able to run out the clock before New York could threaten again. Battles carried the ball 16 times for 215 yards and a touchdown in the first officially recorded 200-yard rushing performance in pro football history. The Giants headed back to Harlem with a 2-2 record.

Home Cooking

The environs of the Polo Grounds definitely agreed with Owen’s team in 1933. If they felt road weary after their five-games-over-three-weeks road trip, they certainly recovered in a hurry. New York opened their home schedule with a record-setting romp in their first-ever meeting with Philadelphia in front of 18,000 fans.

Harry Newman, New York Giants (October 15, 1933)

Harry Newman, New York Giants (October 15, 1933)

Scoring early and often, the Giants set a team record with eight touchdowns and 56 points. The New York Times game summary said: “the red-jerseyed New York team swept ruthlessly through the visiting eleven to register one of the largest scores ever made in professional football. The Giants gave evidence of tremendous power and fine cooperation, unleashing a running and passing attack that completely puzzled the Philadelphia congregation.

The Giants eight touchdowns were scored by six different players: five were rushing and three passing, with Molenda and Kink Richards each going over twice. New York had totaled eight touchdowns in a game against Frankford in 1930 in a 53-0 win, but only converted five point-afters. This time the Giants were eight-for-eight. Jack McBride converted four placements, Strong two, Newman one and Hap Moran passed to Newman for one.

Fifty-point scores were not uncommon in the early days of professional football as mismatches often occurred between the league’s handful of established franchises and the rabble of teams that struggled to hold their rosters together. As the NFL stabilized in the later 1920’s, the level of competition became balanced as there were fewer teams and stronger rosters. One-sided blowouts became less frequent. The Giants two 50-point games in 1929 and 1933 were the only occurrences of that plateau being reached through the six-year span of 1928-1933, and New York would not reach it again until 1950.

The Giants entertained the Dodgers the next week in an inter-borough battle that drew an exuberant 35,000 spectators to the Polo Grounds. Brooklyn featured familiar names to fans of the Giants: Benny Friedman, along with newcomers Chris Cagle and John “Shipwreck” Kelly, who left New York after the 1932 season and acquired a percentage of the Dodgers franchise. Newman again drew praise for his deft passing against Brooklyn’s durable defense, which came into this game off a shut out versus Cincinnati.

A unique play occurred in the second quarter with New York ahead 7-0. Newman punted to the irascible Kelly, who surprisingly punted the ball right back to Newman, giving the Giants a new possession with a net loss of one yard. The Giants lead 14-0 at the half, and after leading another touchdown drive, Newman was given star treatment and was taken out to a standing ovation. Owen sent in Richards to finish the game at tailback. Friedman got the Dodgers on the scoreboard late with a fourth quarter touchdown pass. Brooklyn successfully completed an on-sides kick, but the Giants defense held and the final score was 21-7. After bolstering their record to 4-2, good for first place in the Eastern Division, the Giants boarded the train to Washington for a mid-week exhibition match before heading to the mid-West to meet a familiar foe with a new look.

The Comeback Kings

New York Giants Center/Linebacker Mel Hein in 1933 - Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

New York Giants Center/Linebacker Mel Hein in 1933 – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

After winning the NFL title in 1932, Ralph Jones stepped down as coach for the Bears. George Halas, having bought out long-time partner Edward “Dutch” Sternamn, reinstalled himself as head coach. Part of his motivation may have been the desire to work closely with Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski, who was the embodiment of everything Halas desired in a football player: tough, smart and relentless. Nagurski was a unique specimen. At six feet two inches in height and 235 pounds, he was a nightmare for defender to bring down. On defense he played tackle where he demolished blockers. Hein stated years later, “I learned that if you hit him by yourself, you were in trouble. If you hit him low, he’d trample you to death; if you hit him high, he’d take you about 10 yards. The best way to tackle Bronko was to have your teammates hit him about the same time – one or two low, one or two high. He was the most powerful fullback that I ever played against. Bronko had a knack of running fairly low. He had a big body and he could get that body, that trunk, down and be able to throw his shoulder into you. If you didn’t get under his shoulder, he just knocked you butt over tea kettles.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune boasted the expected crowd was to be the largest ever at Wrigley Field for a professional football game. (The Cardinals occasionally played there when Comiskey Park was unavailable). An added draw was Newman, who had many fans in the area from his time at Michigan University, and his college teammate Bill Hewitt, now on the Bears. Newman was leading the NFL in passing while also averaging five yards per rush. Halas drilled the 5-0 Bears in defensing New York’s diversified attack. Also of note were the three active players who participated in the first Giants – Bears game at the Polo Grounds in 1925: McBride for the Giants and Red Grange and Link Lyman for Chicago, as well as Coach Halas. The Giants and Bears had met 13 times overall with Chicago holding an 8-5 advantage over their Eastern rivals.

The Bears were the cardiac team of the 1933 season, having won four of their five games by coming from behind late in the final period. The Giants controlled much of the action through the first three quarters, keeping the Bears pinned deep in their own end of the field throughout the third quarter. The field position advantage finally paid off for New York when Strong was good on a 26-yard placement for a 10-7 lead. The Giants defense appeared to close the contest after recovering a fumble at mid field. Newman advanced New York to the Bears 35-yard line where the drive stalled. Luke Johnsos tipped the field position advantage and swung the momentum Chicago’s way when he broke through the line and blocked Strong’s punt, Hewitt scooped the ball and wasn’t tackled until he was dragged down from behind by Newman at New York’s 18-yard line. The comeback was on and the 28,000 Chicagoans were on their feet.

Grange, who, along with Hein, played the full 60 minutes, charged forward for a first down at the eight-yard line. On third-and-goal from the 11-yard line, Keith Molesworth received the snap from center, play-faked to Johnny Sisk, and handed off to Bill Hewitt who came around from the end position. Hewitt followed blockers into the line but pulled up as a herd of New York defenders collapsed on him, and lobbed a pass to Bill Karr alone in the end zone. “Automatic” Jack Manders was good on the placement and the Bears went ahead 14-10 with six minutes to play. The Chicago defense held to preserve their perfect record at 6-0. Newman and Strong ran the ball well for the Giants, but Newman completed only two passes while having four intercepted. The Giants held Nagurski in check, but never quite got a handle on Hewitt, who was the game’s top performer.

New York returned home at 4-3, just ahead of 3-3-1 Boston, who was facing the Bears at Fenway Park. The Giants hosted the always tough Spartans, a team owning a three-game winning streak over New York. The first three quarters of the game showed no reversal of fortune for either team. Glenn Presnell ran 81 yards for a touchdown and kicked a field goal for a 10-0 lead. The battle in the trenches was mostly a stalemate. Portsmouth’s front wall was fortified by All-Pro linemen Ox Emerson and George Christensen.

Ken Strong, New York Giants (November 5, 1933)

Ken Strong, New York Giants (November 5, 1933)

New York’s first break came with approximately 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Presnell, who was soon to leave the game from exhaustion, missed an 18-yard placement attempt. Like the blocked punt the previous week in Chicago, the momentum tipped and the door of opportunity opened. Following an exchange of punts, Newman, who had not yet completed a pass, led the Giants on a 68-yard advance. Badgro and Hank Reese began to control the line of scrimmage, clearing space for Strong, Burnett and Newman on plunges and slants. Newman completed a nine-yard pass to Flaherty and completed the drive with a 12-yard aerial to Strong, who fell backward over the goal line for a touchdown. Strong missed the point-after and the deficit remained 10-6.

The aroused New York defense smothered Portsmouth on the ensuing possession and the Giants started on their 48-yard line after receiving a punt. On the first snap, Newman rolled right and lofted a deep ball into the hands of Burnett at the Spartan’s 14-yard line as the Polo Grounds crowd was “galvanized into an excited, roaring mass.” A Spartans defender was penalized for a late hit on Burnett and the ball was set on the one-yard line. The Giants lined up strong to their left and Strong followed a wave of interference to go over for the winning score and added the point-after for a 13-10 victory. Presnell and Strong registered all the points for their respective teams.

The First Pennant Race

The Giants enthusiasm was tempered after receiving news from out of town. Boston had upset the Bears 10-0. The upcoming Redskins game at the Polo Grounds would be a pivotal match for first place in the division. The 5-3 Giants had a half-game lead over 4-3-1 Boston, but the Redskins had won the first game and a sweep would give them a tie-breaking advantage. A large crowd was expected, since the game was billed as a memorial and charity fundraiser for the late Fordham coach Major Frank Cavanaugh. A high scoring game was predicted – the Redskins led the league in rushing and the Giants led the league in passing. That proved not to be the case.

The contest was a savage battle in the trenches. Boston sent Battles into the fray behind Edwards, looking to duplicate the success they enjoyed in the first game. The Giants countered with Strong plunging behind Grant. Neither team passed the ball with great success as the pressure from both defensive fronts was tremendous. It was entirely appropriate that game’s lone touchdown was scored by an unsung member of the pits.

Newman sparked the Giants only sustained drive with a 15-yard return of a Battles’ punt to the New York 44-yard line in the second quarter. Strong plunged three times for a first down at the Boston 44-yard line. Newman connected on a pass to Burnett to the 28-yard line, and then ran a slant off right tackle for a first down at the Redskins 13-yard line. Three rushes left the Giants with a fourth-and-12 on the 15-yard line. Owen passed on the field goal attempt and signaled Newman to run a play.

Newman took the snap from Hein, rolled to his right and fired a high pass toward the goal line. Battles was in position defending the intended receiver. He leapt up and batted the ball down. Tackle Tex Irvin had been running interference for Newman and was in the area. Irvin reached out, grabbed the deflected ball and fell over for the touchdown. Strong’s point-after gave New York a 7-0 advantage and closed out the scoring for the day. The second half was a field-position struggle featuring the punting exploits of Battles and Strong. Neither team advanced beyond the other’s 30-yard line nor there were no serious scoring threats.

With a 6-3 record and a firmer hand on first place, the Giants again found disconcerting news from the out-of-town scoreboard. The Bears had shockingly been played to a 3-3 tie at Philadelphia. Halas’ team would certainly be motivated to get out of their unexpected slump when they visited the Polo Grounds the following week.

In a calculated risk, Owen changed up his line-up, eschewing explosiveness for size. Given that Chicago was the league’s burliest team – their roster averaged 208 pounds, including 215 along the line – this seemed like a questionable strategy. The prospects of a defender staring down the barrel at the 267-pound George Musso running interference for the 235 pound Nagurski must have kept Owen awake at night. Strong and Newman would start the game on the bench in favor of Clancy and McBride. Owen said he would substitute the larger backs for the more dynamic pair when a scoring opportunity presented itself. Richards would also receive significant playing time subbing for Molenda, who was beat up after playing the full sixty minutes of the previous three games.

Owen’s strategy played out exactly as he had envisioned it during the closing moments of the second quarter. The larger lineup played Halas’ eleven to a stalemate through the game’s first 25 minutes. Looking for a spark, Newman and Strong entered the game with the Bears in possession of the ball at their own end of the field. Newman intercepted a Carl Brumbaugh pass and returned it 20 yards to the Chicago 25-yard line. But a clipping penalty during the return moved the ball back to midfield (the penalty for clipping was 25 yards at the time.)

Chicago Bears at New York Giants (November 19, 1933)

Chicago Bears at New York Giants (November 19, 1933)

From the 50-yard line, Newman received the snap, dropped back to pass, and kept retreating under a heavy rush all the way back to New York’s 25-yard line. Side-stepping and weaving through would-be tacklers, Newman headed back up-field. Most of Chicago’s defense was now behind Newman and his receivers took on the role of blockers. He advanced the ball beyond the 50-yard line and wasn’t brought to the ground until he had reached the 15-yard line for a net gain of 35 yards that electrified the 22,000 fans at the Polo Grounds.

Newman completed an eight-yard pass to Turtle Campbell with just over one minute on the clock before halftime. The Giants called their fourth time out of the half and accepted the accompanying five-yard penalty (essentially a delay-of-game infraction). Deciding it was too risky to run another play, Newman called for the field goal try on second down, which Strong sent through the uprights with ease for a 3-0 Giants lead at intermission.

The Bears came back with a vengeance in the third quarter. Nagurski plunged into the line and Brumbaugh flipped laterals to Sisk and delivered aerials to Molesworth during a 66-yard advance. A remarkable 25-yard play included three exchanges of the ball. Brumbaugh passed downfield to Hewitt, who lateralled to Karr. This play was Chicago’s fourth first down of the drive and set the ball goal-to-go on the seven-yard line. But on first down a lateral was mishandled and the Giants recovered the loose ball. The reprieve was temporary however. Strong launched a deep punt but Molesworth evaded several tacklers and returned it back to the New York’s 18-yard line. Sisk and Manders bucked through the line for a first-and-goal from the eight-yard line.

According to The New York Times summary, “Then came the most thrilling moments of the game and a goal line stand by the Giants that had the crowd cheering frenziedly.” On successive plunges Manders, Sisk and Molesworth advanced to the one-yard stripe. Manders was stuffed again on fourth down, but New York was offside and gave Chicago another chance one half-yard from pay dirt. The Giants line penetrated and Molesworth was thrown for a three-yard loss on the fifth attempt. New York took over possession on their own four-yard line. Grant and Ollie Satenstein were cited for their exceptional efforts to come off blocks and repel the forward charge.

Neither team penetrated deep into the other’s territory and Strong’s field goal held up for the 3-0 win. New York was not firmly in control of the division yet as Boston kept pace by defeating Green Bay. And Brooklyn was on an undefeated roll of their own and stood at 4-2-1.

The Giants dispatched the slumping Packers the next week with relative ease, 17-6. The contest was notable for Strong’s unique free kick field goal in the second quarter. You can read more about this historic occurrence here.

The Dodgers vaulted over the Redskins into second place with a 14-0 win over Boston at Ebbets Field. Brooklyn’s defense had been virtually impregnable following the 21-7 loss to New York in October. Since that game, the Dodgers surrendered only three points over five games during a 4-0-1 run (the tie game was 3-3 versus Pittsburgh). They had given up only four touchdowns thus far during the season; one to the Bears and three to the Giants. Standing at 5-2-1, a win over New York on Thanksgiving would put Brooklyn in first place by percentage points over the currently 8-3 Giants.

Owen again altered his strategy for a rugged opponent, this time emphasizing the aerial attack as Brooklyn was the toughest unit to run on. The first half saw the expected physical line play from both units and three missed field goals, two by New York and one by Brooklyn. The second Giants miss was one that had the fans of both teams on their feet in anticipation of a potentially great feat.

New York had the ball on Brooklyn’s 45-yard line with only seconds on the clock before halftime and elected to go for what would be a record long field goal. Newman knelt on the Giants 48-yard line for the hold. The snap and spot were perfect and New York’s front kept the Dodgers out for Strong’s booming placement. It was high and long enough but sailed just outside the right upright. Remarkably, the ball flew over the end zone and hit the Ebbets field grandstand wall before coming back to the turf. Its flight was estimated to have been 65 yards and the 28,000 fans gave Strong an ovation for his effort as the teams walked off the field for intermission.

Dale Burnett (18), Harry Newman (12 - making the tackle), Ken Strong (50), New York Giants (November 30, 1933)

Dale Burnett (18), Harry Newman (12 – making the tackle), Ken Strong (50), New York Giants (November 30, 1933)

A four-play drive in the third quarter, all passes, gained 59 yards to set up Strong’s 16-yard field goal to put the Giants on top 3-0. Following an exchange of punts, New York was on the move again, now with Clancy in for Newman. Clancy plunged for three-yards and McBride completed a nine-yard pass to Flaherty for a first down. Four consecutive rushes moved the chains again and the Giants had the ball on the Dodgers 11-yard line as the game moved into the final period.

Brooklyn crowded the line of scrimmage and Clancy called for a trick play. McBride received the direct snap from Hein and handed off to Molenda, who faked a line buck and tossed a diagonal pass toward Flaherty in the end zone. Flaherty was knocked down by a defender before the ball arrived and the pass interference penalty gave New York a first-and-goal on the one-yard line. Clancy went over for the score on a plunge and the Giants had the game in control after McBride’s placement made it 10-0. Brooklyn never threatened and the Giants returned to the Polo Grounds at 9-3, all but assured of the first Eastern Division title in league history.

Only 10,000 spectators braved a cold rain to watch the Giants clinch the Eastern Division title against Pittsburgh. The 27-3 final score belied the frustration New York endured for most of the first three quarters. Newman passed the ball nearly at will on three long drives in the first half – including a 98-yard march between the one-yard lines – that all came up empty. With three minutes left in the third quarter, the Pirates still lead 3-0. Finally New York’s attack broke free. Newman peppered the Pittsburgh secondary with accurate strikes to sure-handed receivers and Strong capped the drive with a scoring strike of his own for a 7-3 advantage at the end of the penultimate period. Another touchdown drive gave the Giants a 14-3 lead. The Giants intercepted two passes (including one by Newman), giving New York short fields to work with and the rout was on.

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (December 10, 1933); Ken Strong with the Football

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (December 10, 1933); Ken Strong with the Football

A surprisingly-tough Eagles team gave the Giants a run for their money to end the regular season at the snow-covered Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. Given that New York had already clinched the division and had easily rolled over the Eagles in the first meeting, they may not have been sharp. A 61-yard rush by Swede Hanson in the middle of the fourth quarter gave Philadelphia a 14-13 lead and apparent upset victory, but it was to be short lived. The 8,000 fans who withstood the winter weather were stunned to see Newman complete a 61-yard touchdown pass to Richards immediately after. The 20-14 lead held and 11-3 New York closed the season on a seven-game win streak and with a perfect 7-0 record at home. Despite the championship game being held in Chicago, Owen and the Giants were confident.

The First Greatest Game Ever Played

Anticipation was high for the NFL’s first championship game between division winners. Newspaper coverage previewing the event was the most extensive since Grange’s debut in 1925. The Chicago Daily Tribune billed the game as “the football championship of the United States.” Articles were written in both cities portraying the exploits of Newman, Strong, Manders and Nagurski. Point spreads were not published, but The New York Times hinted toward what handicappers might be thinking, “The elevens are so evenly matched defensively that the game probably will be decided on mistakes or ‘breaks,’ with the chance that it will develop into an aerial battle.”

New York Giants - Chicago Bears NFL Championship Game Program (December 17, 1933)

New York Giants – Chicago Bears NFL Championship Game Program (December 17, 1933)

Grange would not start the game for Chicago, but he would see plenty of playing time. In his ninth season of professional ball, Grange no longer possessed the breakaway speed that had earned him the moniker “The Galloping Ghost”. But he was an extremely-intelligent player and was one of Halas’ most dependable defensive backs.

Despite a light rain and fog at the game’s start and chilly temperatures, 30,000 eager fans arrived at Wrigley Field, the largest crowd there in eight years. The game opened at a deliberate pace as the two teams sparred one another. Gradually the tempo increased as they warmed up and before long their engines were humming. The ebb and flow, big plays, momentum swings and rapid lead changes made everyone forget the weather in a hurry. The New York Times summary put it succinctly: “The game was a thrilling combat of forward passing skill, desperate line plunging and gridiron strategy that kept the chilled spectators on their feet in constant excitement.”

On Chicago’s first possession, Molesworth quick-kicked the ball over Newman’s head, and pinned New York deep in their own end. Strong punted for the Giants on third down, and Molesworth returned the ball eight yards to the New York 42-yard line. Nagurski and Gene Ronzani rushes moved the chains twice and set the ball on the 15-yard line. From there the Giants defense stiffened and Manders was good on a 16-yard placement to giving the Bears a 3-0 lead.

New York resorted to deception to try to get on the scoreboard. The ball was spotted on the Bears 45-yard line, where the Giants lined up in an unbalanced formation with both guards and tackles deployed to Hein’s right and only the end on his left. The right end was split approximately 20 yards toward the sideline. Newman stepped up from his tailback position directly under center. On the first signal, the left end stepped back, making Hein eligible, and the wingback stepped up to cover the right tackle and the right end stepped back. Hein snapped the ball into Newman’s hands, who handed it right back to Hein. The line fired off to their right, Newman followed the fullback into the line as if he still possessed the ball and was brought to the ground by Musso. While this was going on, Hein nonchalantly walked forward approximately five yard with the concealed ball. Chicago had been completely fooled. None of the Bears defenders had paid any attention to the center, but Hein suddenly broke into a sprint toward the goal line. Brumbaugh alertly saw Hein take off and chased him down after a 30-yard gain. The Bears held and kept New York off the scoreboard.

Hein said, “This was a play we had to alert the officials about ahead of time. We put all the linemen to my right except the left end. Then he shifted back a yard, making me end man on the line, while the wingback moved up on the line on the right. Harry Newman came right up under me, like a T-formation quarterback. I handed the ball to him between my legs and he immediately put it right back in my hands – the shortest forward pass on record. I was supposed to fake a block and then just stroll down the field waiting for blockers, but after a few yards I got excited and started to run and the Bear safety, Keith Molesworth, saw me and knocked me down. I was about 15 yards from the goal, but we never did score on that drive.”

In the second quarter, Grange returned Richards’ punt to the Giants 46-yard line. Ronzani caught a 15-yard pass on second down at the Giants 29-yard line. A short rush and two incomplete passes brought Manders out for another field goal, which was good from 40-yards and gave Chicago a 6-0 advantage.

1933 NFL Championship Game (December 17, 1933)

1933 NFL Championship Game (December 17, 1933)

New York returned the kickoff to their 38-yard line. On second-and–five, Richards bucked into the line, bounced off Lyman and charged through the secondary until he was brought down at the Chicago 29-yard line. Newman threw a scoring strike to Badgro and Strong’s point-after placement marked the game’s first lead change as New York moved ahead 7-6. The score held to halftime, as a long Chicago drive resulted in a rare Manders’ missed field goal attempt.

In the third quarter, Richards punted out of bounds at the Bears 37-yard line. Nagurski bulled through the line for a 14-yard gain to the Giants 49-yard line. After an incomplete pass and three-yard Ronzani plunge, Nagurski picked up seven yards on a cut back through the line for a first down. George Corbett completed a 27-yard pass to Brumbaugh before New York stuffed three rushes. Manders was good on his third field goal, this one from 18-yards, to put Chicago back on top 9-7.

Newman returned the kickoff to New York’s 27-yard line and completed a pass to Burnett on first down to the 50-yard line and then another pass to Burnett to the Bears 37-yard line. On second-and-10, Richards bucked for six yards and on third down Newman connected with Badgro to Chicago’s nine-yard line for a first-and-goal. New York was penalized for illegal motion, so on first down from the 14-yard line, Newman completed a 13-yard pass to Max Krause who was pushed out of bounds at the one-yard line. Richards was stuffed on a plunge by Lyman, but Krause went over for the score on third down. Strong’s placement put New York ahead 14-9.

The mutual offensive momentum was irresistible. Corbett returned the kickoff to the Bears 23-yard line, then alternated plunges with Nagurski for a combined seven yards. One third-and-three from the 30-yard line, Nagurski was stopped after a gain of one. Chicago was flagged for illegal motion on the play and the Giants accepted the five-yard penalty to give Chicago a third-and-eight. From a punt formation, Corbett passed to Brumbaugh who traversed through open field down to New York’s eight-yard line, a gain of 67 yards which had the Wrigley Field stands in a state of bedlam. Two rushes netted two yards, and on third-and-goal, Nagurski faked a plunge and lobbed a pass over the line to Karr in the end zone – the same exact play that had won the championship in the playoff against Portsmouth the previous season. Manders’ placement put Chicago back ahead, 16-14, the third lead-change of the quarter.

Strong returned the kickoff to the Giants 26-yard line. Three consecutive Newman completions quickly moved New York to Chicago’s 25-yard line. After a false start, Newman completed his fourth consecutive pass, this one to Burnett, and the Giants had a first-and-goal on the Bears eight-yard line as the thrilling third quarter ended.

On the fourth quarter’s first play, Newman handed off to Strong who ran a slant to the left, spun and lateraled the ball back to Newman. Chicago’s defense reacted to the ball and changed direction. Newman spotted Strong alone in the end zone and finished the drive with his fifth completion and a touchdown to regain the lead. Strong said, “Newman handed off to me on a reverse to the left, but the line was jammed up. I turned and saw Newman standing there, so I threw him the ball. He was quite surprised. He took off to his right, but then he got bottled up. By now I had crossed into the end zone and the Bears had forgotten me. Newman saw me wildly waving my hands and threw me the ball. I caught it and fell into the first-base dugout.” Strong’s placement put New York on top again, 21-16.

The Bears received the kickoff and generated two first downs as they advanced to midfield. New York’s defense held its ground and forced a punt. The Bears defense responded in kind and forced a Giants punt after three downs. The Giants got the ball back when Ronzani threw a deep pass that was intercepted by Krause at the Giants 35-yard line. Unable to move the chains, New York went three-and-out again and gave the Bears favorable field position in doing so. Strong received Hein’s true snap, but Chicago pressure quickly penetrated and rushed the punting attempt. The ball went straight up in the air and bounced forward for a net of nine yards.

The Bears started their third possession of the fourth quarter on the Giants 47-yard line. A nine-yard pass and Nagurski run gave Chicago a first down on the Giants 33-yard line. Nagurski faked a plunge and completed a jump pass to Hewitt who raced through the secondary. As two defenders converged on Hewitt at the at the 20-yard line, he lateralled to Karr who continued diagonally toward the sideline, then cut back to pick up a block on a defender, and ran the distance for the go-ahead touchdown. Brumbaugh’s placement put the Bears ahead 23-21 with three minutes on the clock.

The Giants looked to strike fast after receiving the kickoff, and lined up in the same unbalanced formation where Hein had run with the snap-handoff in the first quarter. Only this time, Newman took the snap and pitched to Burnett who ran right, while Hein released as a receiver. The Bears were fooled a second time, but Burnett was pressured by the pass rush and his throw was high and wobbly. The arc of the ball allowed Molesworth to recover and knock the ball to the ground incomplete before Hein could get his hands on it.

After moving the chains there was time left for just one more play, and Newman called for a hook-and-lateral. Newman completed a pass to Badgro who had Burnett trailing him. Grange had been in position and when tackling Badgro, he noticed Burnett looking for the ball. As he wrapped up Badgro, Grange pinned Badgro’s arms to his body. Badgro was unable to release the ball to the wide open Burnett as Grange wrestled him to the ground.

Grange said, “I was alone in the defense and Burnett was coming at me with (Hein) on the side of him. I could see he wanted to lateral, so I didn’t go low. I hit him around the ball and pinned his arms.” Badgro unsuccessfully tried to run through the tackle once he realized he couldn’t deliver the ball. “If I’d gotten by Red Grange, I would have scored. Grange had me around the middle. His arms were around the ball and I couldn’t get rid of it. If I get by him, we win the game.

The clock expired and the final gun went off. Owen overheard an official near the New York bench ask, “Who won?” to which Newman quipped, “How should I know? I was only playing.”

There was no most-valuable-player award at the time. Newman and Manders stood out for their respective teams, but The Chicago Daily Tribune had this to say on the subject after going through a roll call of performers:”…realize that THIS football game belonged to the teams. No better example of teamwork and uniform direction can be found in the history of the sport…and in all mechanics of the game, blocking and tackling, the players left slight chance for criticism. Six times the lead changed. And on each occasion that New York or Chicago went to the fore the tension increased.”

The significance of the moment was not missed in the post-game buzz. Scribes noted the impact of the new rules and realized they had just been treated to a glimpse of the future. And they raved about it. The New York Times said: “The struggle was a revelation to college coaches who advocate no changes in the rules. It was strictly an offensive battle and the professional rule of allowing passes to be thrown from any point behind the line of scrimmage was responsible for most of the thrills.”

For the very first time, pro football was acknowledged as a leader, something to be emulated, not scorned. It would be some time before the tag “post-graduate” would be retired for good, but during that chilly and wet afternoon at Wrigley Field, the pendulum swung in the pros favor and there would be no looking back.

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Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (November 23, 1930); Benny Friedman with the Football

Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (November 23, 1930); Benny Friedman with the Football

by Larry Schmitt with contributions from Rev. Mike Moran for BigBlueInteractive.com

The 1930 season was the NFL’s eleventh in operation. Although the circuit had made many significant improvements in its structure, organization and operation, it still was subordinated in the general public’s favor. Baseball, college football and boxing received far more attention and recognition from the media and public. Pro football was largely ignored until the World Series had concluded, and Sunday sports pages were filled with college football summaries from Saturday, while pro football previews rarely existed, even in the cities where the home team was hosting a contest that very day.

New York City is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Prior to the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929, three local colleges fielded nationally-significant teams – Columbia, Fordham and NYU – that were loyally followed by fans. When they met one another, games were moved from their respective campuses to the larger Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium to accommodate the demand for tickets. It was not uncommon in the 1920’s for the Giants to play a home game in front of crowds in the low 10,000’s the day after a college game that featured a capacity crowd in the same building. The NYU-Fordham contests guaranteed full houses at the close of the decade, with crowds of 50,000 and 60,000 packing the Polo Grounds respectively in 1928 and 1929. The 1930 game was moved to Yankee Stadium where 78,500 patrons purchased every ticket. New York had plenty of football fans, they just happened to prefer the college version of the sport.

Big Crowds and Seminal Moments

Accentuating this preference was the fact that New Yorkers’ support for teams beyond the city limits was robust as well. The Army Cadets from West Point, which is approximately 50 miles north of Harlem, used the Polo Grounds as its home-away-from-home when playing marquis games that drew crowds that exceeded the capacity of Michie Stadium.

This devotion to college football expanded beyond the state. New York’s large Catholic and Irish populations formed a segment of fans that soon became known as the “Subway Alumni.” Although most of them never visited South Bend, Indiana, they adopted the team as their own. Notre Dame’s first contest in the city was at the Polo Grounds on November 8, 1921 against Rutgers. The crowd of 15,000 would prove to be the smallest the visitors from Indiana would ever perform before within the metropolitan area, but a phenomenon had taken root. The turnout was probably affected by the fact that the game was held on a Tuesday. Notre Dame had beaten Army 28-0 at West Point the prior Saturday and stayed over at the Bear Mountain Inn to prepare for the Rutgers game. Newspapers covered the game extensively and reveled in Notre Dame’s performance in their 48-0 win.

Notre Dame had visited West Point nearly every season since 1913, and their rivalry had become celebrated as both teams were national powers. The first meeting between the two in New York took place on October 13, 1923 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. A near-capacity crowd exceeding 30,000 watched Notre Dame’s 13-0 victory. A month later, on November 24, Army played rival Navy to a 0-0 tie at the Polo Grounds. The stadium was filled beyond its normal capacity. The throng of 63,000 was accommodated by temporary bleachers along the outfield walls, and was the largest in city history to that point.

The Army-Notre Dame game on October 18, 1924 was held at the Polo Grounds as well, and was a tremendous boon for the visitors from Indiana. Over 60,000 fans were in attendance while a major corner stone of Notre Dame lore was established. This was the day New York Herald Tribune writer Grantland Rice penned his famous opening to his game summary of Notre Dame’s 13-7 victory:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

The Army-Notre Dame game outgrew the Polo Grounds. Between 1925 and 1929, the five games between the teams at Yankee Stadium averaged over 80,000 spectators. The November 10, 1928 game featured another legendary moment for Notre Dame. Tied 0-0 with Army at halftime, Notre Dame Head Coach Knute Rockne delivered his impassioned, and now legendary, “Win One for the Gipper” speech in the Yankee Stadium locker room. Notre Dame controlled the second half for a 6-0 win over the previously unbeaten Army team.

Army also played Navy in New York City during this time. The 1925 and 1927 games were held at the Polo Grounds, where the crowd of 75,000 in 1927 was the largest ever at the venue for any sporting event. The 1930 game at Yankee Stadium was attended by 70,000 spectators. The largest crowd for an Army game in New York was the December 12, 1928 contest against Stanford before a standing room only house of 86,000, and the November 8, 1930 contest versus Illinois drew 74,000 fans.

Competition Amid Apathy

Amidst all this appreciation for college football, the Giants were received with relative indifference. In 1921, University of Chicago Head Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg famously tagged pro football as a “menace,” and fans of the college game still derisively termed NFL product as “Post Graduate Football” and stayed away in droves. While that claim proved ludicrous decades later, pro football’s image problem was real and largely self-inflicted.

The NFL game was indistinguishable from the college game, and experienced great difficulty attracting new fans. Many colleges had programs dating back to the 1890’s; their fan bases were deeply rooted and loyal, while the NFL experienced a nomadic and unpredictable period of franchise movement and lack of stability.

The Giants inaugural-season crowd average at the Polo Grounds was a seemingly robust 24,000 for nine dates. But, when discounting the 73,000 who showed up for the Red Grange game on December 6, the average drops significantly to 17,875 for the other eight home games. The following season was grim. Pro football felt the strain of over-saturation in the market as five teams competed on Sundays in the greater New York area: the Giants and Brooklyn Lions of the NFL, and the Newark Bears, Brooklyn Horsemen and New York Yankees of the rival AFL. Before the season closed, Newark ceased operations and the Brooklyn teams merged as a single entity within the NFL. Grange’s Yankees were the AFL’s lone survivor and were absorbed into the NFL in 1927. Both they and the Giants – whose attendance for eight home dates at the Polo Grounds plummeted to a paltry 9,500 per game average – finished in near financial ruin.

The Giants attendance rebounded into the middle 10,000’s for the next two seasons: 18,500 for the championship season of 1927 and 16,000 in 1928. A strong team in 1929 featuring headliner Benny Friedman boosted the season average to 21,250 for eight home dates. Over this span, the Giants largest home gate, aside from the 1925 Grange game, was a turnout of 38,000 to see the Providence Steam Roller on November 8, 1927. That was a triple header on Election Day where the Giants were warmed up by two high school games, who no doubt were the bigger attraction. It is not known how many stayed in their seats to watch the pros at day’s end.

Most Giants home crowds ranged from 15,000 to 25,000, but many dates fell below 10,000. Compounding the problem was the fact that the Giants gave away thousands of tickets for each date, in hopes of attracting new fans to home games. On the road, the gate for Giants games averaged approximately 4,000-5,000 less than home games. The Giants largest away game was 26,000 for a game against the Bears at Wrigley Field on November 3, 1929. Games in smaller cities like Providence, Frankford, Pottsville and Green Bay were usually in the 8,000-9,000 range.

Hard Times, Good Times

The onset of the Great Depression in October 1929 put another strain on the fledgling pro game. Nobody knew it at the time, but the Depression proved to be a blessing in disguise and helped the NFL gain respectability.

As would be expected, initially, the first result from the economic downturn across all sports was reduced attendance. Baseball, boxing, and college and pro football all suffered at the gate. The big three sports would not fully recover to their Roaring 20’s-level of prosperity again until well after World War II. Pro football, however, bucked the trend. By the late 1930’s, attendance began a slow but consistently steady upward climb, as did press coverage.

This effect was twofold. First, many colleges reassessed their football programs. Many universities subordinated football’s relevance, and others disbanded their programs completely. It was no longer possible for some football fans to find a game to attend on a Saturday afternoon, while interest by others faded as their favorite program’s prestige diminished. Second, the job market for college graduates shrank dramatically. For some, pro football was their only opportunity for employment, even if it was only for a portion of the year. Ken Strong, a member of the Staten Island Stapletons at the time of the stock market crash and later of the Giants, said, “The Depression sent a lot of boys into professional football who would have had jobs in good times. It has helped a good many of them pay off debts they ran up in order to get through college.” This resulted in higher-quality rosters in the pro ranks, and better games. Some college fans for the first time gravitated to the NFL to follow the alumni from their college teams.

Wide-scale growth and prosperity for the pro game was still a long way off, but the seed planted by pro football in 1920 was now beginning to take root. Still, even with more attention on pro football, many still thought the pro game inferior to the college game. Many in the general public would quickly proclaim that a good college team would be more than capable of whipping the best pro teams. It would not be long before that theory was put to the test, and that debate rendered obsolete. It served as the catalyst for pro football’s ascension in public opinion.

Champions and Contenders

Notre Dame was the National Champion in 1929 and would repeat with a dominant and undefeated 1930 season. The Packers were the NFL champs in 1929, finishing just ahead of the Giants in a heated race, and had not lost a game since December 1928. The difference between first and second place was a late season contest at the Polo Grounds where Green Bay defeated the Giants 20-6. They would renew their rivalry twice in 1930, and it was not a coincidence. Teams still set their own schedules, and a meeting between two good teams usually meant a strong turnout at the gate (weather permitting) and this was not lost on the owners who spent the offseason tightening their belts. Tim Mara said later of the challenging financial period, “The only luck we had was in 1930. I agreed to go to Green Bay for $4,000, and the Packers agreed to come to New York for $5,000. We cleared $60,000 on the two games. This was a real lifesaver, coming as it did right after the Wall Street crash.”

The two teams featured similar traits – high-scoring offenses that helped further the passing game (something that would tremendously help pro football vault over college football later in the decade) and powerful lines that battered opponents. The Giants led the NFL in scoring in 1929 while the Packers allowed the fewest points. New York tailback and passing pioneer Benny Friedman said years later, “We had no problems with anyone else, but the Packers were special. They were so big, and yet they were so fast, that they almost won their games before they took the field.”

Len Grant, New York Giants (1930)

Len Grant, New York Giants (1930)

New on the Giants roster in 1930 was end Morris “Red” Badgro. All-Pro end Ray Flaherty left the Giants to coach at Gonzaga, but Badgro stepped in and performed just as well as his predecessor. Rookies Len Grant and Butch Gibson brought young blood to an already strong line and back Dale Burnett contributed as a blocker and occasional ball carrier.

The 1930 New York Football Giants were a confident team heading into the early part of their season, which as usual was a string of road games as they waited for the baseball Giants to conclude their season and vacate the Polo Grounds. Friedman, tackle Steve Owen and halfback Jack Hagerty picked up where they left off the year before and dominated the Newark Tornadoes and Providence Steam Roller by an aggregate tally of 59-7. In between, the Giants also played a Thursday night exhibition contest against the Long Island Bulldogs in Brooklyn. New York’s resolve was quickly put to the test the following week on a visit to the reigning champions in Green Bay.

The Packers also brought back much of their 1929 roster into the new season. Tackle Cal Hubbard, guard Mike Michalske and end Johnny “Blood” McNally, who wrought havoc on the Giants in their pivotal game in 1929, were back and as good as ever. A newcomer brought an enticing dimension with him. Tailback Arnie Herber, while playing in limited time behind Verne Lewellen, showed promise with a strong and accurate passing arm.

City Stadium was filled with 13,000 fans to greet the 2-0 and unscored upon Packers. The front walls of both defenses controlled the early action. Midway through the second quarter, Green Bay advanced into New York territory. Lewellen connected on a short pass to end Tom Nash, who evaded a defender before traveling the distance into the end zone on a 15-yard play. The Giants offense was unable to respond and punted the ball back. New York also held, then created a golden opportunity by blocking the Packers punt. From Green Bay’s 24-yard line, three rushes moved the chains for a first down. After being thrown for a loss, Friedman connected with Len Sedbrook for a 20-yard touchdown.

Both defenses regained firm control of the contest through the third quarter. The 7-7 tie was broken in the final period when McNally received a short pass from Red Dunn and raced 55 yards for the touchdown and eventual 14-7 victory. Again, New York had played the Packers tough but came up just short. The Packers seemed to have a knack for spurning the Giants by making a big play late precisely when they needed it.

Revival

The next stop on road trip provided another familiar opponent, against the always formidable Chicago Bears, who had recently undergone a significant change in on-field leadership. George Halas and Edward “Dutch” Sternaman, who co-owned the Bears, had also served as co-coaches for the franchise’s first nine seasons. Both men were opinionated and strong willed, which often led to confrontations. During the offseason, the two founders decided the best path for all involved would be to step back and find someone new to coach the Bears while they both focused on the business aspect of running the team. They settled on Ralph Jones, who was a successful collegiate coach at Purdue and Illinois.

Jones was a cerebral coach, and he tinkered with Halas’ favored offensive system, the original T-Formation. Jones set the quarterback under center where he would receive a direct snap. (Previously he would take a short snap approximately two or three yards behind the center.) Jones also widened the line splits, giving the blockers more freedom for lateral movement within schemes, rather than simply trying to outmuscle the defender directly across from him. The most revolutionary change was the pre-snap motion where one of the halfbacks would move laterally across the formation and be far outside the end when the play started. Over the course of the upcoming decades, this back-in-motion would ultimately evolve into the flanker.

Nearly as unique as the new schemes was the rookie who made the X’s and O’s come to life on the field, Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski. At six feet, two inches in height and weighing approximately 235 pounds, Nagurski was larger than most linemen of his era. He lined up at tackle on defense, but was a fullback on offense. It certainly is no surprise that Nagurski was a devastating force on line plunges, but he also proved to be adept at ball placement when pulling up before hitting the line and delivering a strike to a receiver. Later in his career, Owen answered a question regarding the best way to defense Nagurski, “With a shotgun, as he’s leaving the dressing room.”

Just over 12,000 fans showed up for the Bears home opener at Wrigley Field. Like the Giants, the Chicago football teams opened their seasons on the road while they awaited their shared stadia to become available after the conclusion of baseball season. The first quarter featured a scoreless 15 minutes where New York wasted long advances with lost fumbles in Chicago territory.

When the Giants finally secured a firm grip on the ball, they took over the game quickly. They erupted for two touchdowns in the first six minutes of the second quarter, sparked by a takeaway. Dale Burnett intercepted a Carl Brumbaugh aerial at Chicago’s 20-yard line and was dragged down from behind at the two-yard line by Nagurski. Ossie Wiberg plunged over the line for the touchdown but Friedman’s placement attempt sailed wide left. Following a short Bears punt, Friedman directed a 47-yard scoring drive over ten plays. Eight advances were rushes, including three by Friedman totaling 19 yards. The star tailback was one-for-two passing, with the completion being good for 10 yards to Len Sedbrook to the three-yard line to set up Burnett’s touchdown plunge. Red Grange’s brother Garland Grange blocked Friedman’s point-after attempt.

Apparently satisfied with the 12-0 lead, Friedman retired to the sidelines for most of the afternoon while Jack Hagerty assumed the helm. Attempting to placate the patrons who called out to see Friedman launch aerials, Head Coach LeRoy Andrews reinserted Friedman in a quasi-curtain call, and he finished the day a modest three-for-five for 33 yards passing. The Giants defense handled Jones’ new version of the T-formation with little trouble, having allowed just six first downs and not letting Chicago reach New York’s 20-yard line.

The Giants home opener came on a short week as they had a Thursday game scheduled against Chicago’s other team. The Cardinals featured a genuine triple threat in Ernie Nevers, a player who could run, catch, punt and drop kick with equal effectiveness while also playing rock-solid defense. The marquis attractions Friedman and Nevers would meet up under the lights in the Polo Grounds’ first-ever night game, a new marketing experiment by the NFL in its continuing quest to engage the public.

A crowd of 15,000, which included former Governor Al Smith, watched the Giants perform in the clutch with big plays in a come-from-behind win. All of New York’s scoring occurred in the final five minutes of both halves.

Chicago baffled New York on a 75-yard advance featuring reverses, a triple pass and delayed line bucks. The drive was initiated near the end of the opening period and carried over into the second. Mack Flenniken went over for the score but the point after was missed. The middle part of the quarter was played evenly before Sedbrook took off on an 85-yard touchdown run for New York to tie the game. Then Friedman shrewdly directed a touchdown drive that was capped off with a Wiberg plunge. Friedman’s point-after gave the Giants a 13-6 advantage at the half.

A scoreless third quarter set up a thrilling final period. The first nine minutes of the quarter were dominated by stout defenses and exchanges of punts. With under six minutes to play, Chicago assumed possession of the ball on the mid-field stripe. On first down, Bunny Belden connected with Chuck Kassel on a deep pass for a 42-yard gain. Flenniken plunged twice for the final seven yards and the touchdown. Howard Maple’s point-after try was wide, but the Cardinals were within one point, 13-12 and had momentum on their side.

The kickoff return gave New York the ball at mid-field and Friedman wrested control of the contest. Line plunges and slants were mixed with a 10-yard completion to Tiny Feather. Friedman went over for the score to give the Giants a 19-12 lead, but missed the point-after. Chicago initiated a desperation drive for a tie, but Nevers lost a fumble on New York’s 40-yard line. Friedman battered through the Cardinals defense, and completed a pass to Glenn Campbell at the two-yard line. Three Freidman goal-to-go plunges were stonewalled by Chicago’s front, but he creased them on fourth down for the final tally and a 25-12 win.

There was no opportunity for rest. In less than 72 hours the Giants would host Frankford for their third game in eight days. As was their custom, however, the Yellow Jackets arrived at the Polo Grounds having played a home game on Saturday – local blue laws forbade public gatherings on Sunday. The scoreless first quarter belied the firepower in New York’s passing offense. Four of the Giants team-record eight touchdowns came from the arm of Friedman, and the Giants topped the 50-point mark for the first time in franchise history. The other scores came via two rushes, an interception return and a fifth touchdown pass by Hap Moran, which had commenced the parade.

Hap Moran (22), New York Giants (October 19, 1930)

Hap Moran (22), New York Giants (October 19, 1930)

The Giants previous high mark for points in a game was a 45-3 win at the Buffalo Bisons in 1929. An unofficial milestone was reached in this 53-0 win as well. Friedman was the first-known player to accumulate 300 yards passing in a game. Newspaper accounts credit him with 18 completions in 23 attempts for 310 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. NFL statistical records were not officially recorded until 1932, however, so this performance is mostly overlooked in historical chronicles.

(The NFL’s first officially recognized 300-yard passer is by Pat Coffee of the Cardinals. On December 5, 1937, Coffee was 17-of-35-for 304 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in a 42-28 loss to the Bears in a game that was called with just under three minutes to play on account of darkness at an icy Wrigley Field. The Giants first official 300-yard passing effort was by Paul Governalli on November 9, 1947, who was 16-of-35 for 341 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 41-24 loss to Philadelphia.)

After a full week off, the Giants went back to the three-games-in-eight-days grind. The defense was up to the challenge, and New York defeated Providence on Sunday, Newark on Wednesday night and Staten Island on the following Sunday by aggregate score of 68-14 at the Polo Grounds.

Steve Owen, New York Giants (October 26, 1930)

Steve Owen, New York Giants (October 26, 1930)

The game against the Stapletons was actually a formidable challenge as the Giants escaped with a come-from-behind 9-7 win off the foot of Friedman who was good on a 42-yard placement field goal with under 1:00 on the clock. (You can read more about this game here.)

A two-games-in-four-days road trip saw Friedman rush and pass New York to a 19-6 win at Portsmouth on Wednesday night before a Sunday afternoon rematch with the Cardinals at Comiskey Park. A small crowd of only 4,000 attended because across town at Wrigley Field the Bears tangled with Green Bay in a crucial contest that drew 22,000 spectators. Both Chicago teams lost close games: the Bears 13-12 and the Cardinals 13-7, setting up a stretch run for first place between the 10-1 Giants and 8-0 Packers.

Most surprisingly to the fans at Comiskey Park was that the hero of the day was neither Friedman nor Nevers. Friedman struggled through the first half, completing just one of eight pass attempts, while Nevers caught a 20-yard pass for a 7-0 Chicago halftime lead. That score had been set up by a 65-yard Nevers punt that was downed on the New York one-yard line. The ensuing Giants punt only moved the ball out to the 35-yard line, giving Chicago a short field. Nevers rushed for 10 yards on first down and scored two plays later.

Moran entered the game after halftime but there was no change on the scoreboard until several minutes had elapsed from the fourth quarter clock. When New York had the ball on their own 40-yard line, Moran completed a five-yard pass to Hagerty who sprinted down field, zig-zagged through would be tacklers, and crossed over for a 60-yard touchdown. Moran’s placement try was blocked and the Giants trailed 7-6.

After forcing a Chicago punt, New York took over from their 30-yard line. Moran lofted a deep ball to Glenn Campbell for a 35-yard gain into Cardinal territory. On first down, Moran connected again with Campbell, this time for seven yards to the 28-yard line. On second-and-three, Moran faked a pass and raced around end to the Chicago 15-yard line. Mule Wilson plunged twice to set up a first-and-goal from the two and Moran received the honors of going over for the touchdown himself. His point-after put the Giants in the lead 13-7. New York’s defense preserved for the important victory. Moran unofficially finished the day six-of-eight passing for 147 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception. Despite missing a field goal late to ice the game, he outplayed both Friedman and Nevers and was the lead man in both the Chicago Herald Tribune and New York Times on Monday.

On November 16, the day the Giants lost 12-0 to the Bears in miserable cold rain and wind at the Polo Grounds, the big news was college star back Chris Cagle was to be released from his coaching contract at Mississippi A&M to play for the Giants. Cagle had been a star performer for West Point before losing his amateur eligibility when it was discovered he had been married, which was a violation of college rules at the time. The current Giants squad faced an improved Bears team that featured the powerful Nagurski finding his niche. He plowed through New York’s front wall setting up one fourth-quarter touchdown and going over for the second himself. The Giants passing attack, whether it was Friedman or Moran, struggled on the sloppy track in front of the small crowd of 5,000 fans. Good news arrived for the Giants from out of town however. The Packers were upset by the Cardinals at Comiskey Park 13-6, giving the Giants a chance to vault past Green Bay as the Packers came to New York the next week.

The Rematch

Pro football generated some buzz during the week leading up to the game. The contest was billed as a de facto league championship match. The New York Times even made mention of former Giant Cal Hubbard returning to face his old team with its new star Cagle. The public bought into the hype and the 40,000 fans gave the Giants their largest home attendance mark since Red Grange’s visit in 1925.

Benny Friedman (1) and Chris Cagle (10), New York Giants (1930)

Benny Friedman (1) and Chris Cagle (10), New York Giants (1930)

To the dismay of fans, however, Cagle left the game in the first quarter having suffered a facial laceration after catching a short pass. Badgro put the Giants on the scoreboard first when he caught a perfectly placed spiral from Friedman along the sideline at the two-yard line and was tackled lunging over the final stripe for the touchdown. Friedman’s placement gave New York a 7-0 lead that held into the second half.

In the third quarter, Moran set up New York’s second touchdown with a rush out of the punt formation with the Giants pinned deep at their end of the field. Moran ran around right end then cut up the center of the field. Two blockers kept pace with Moran, who evaded McNally twice as he traversed up-field, until the Green Bay 10-yard line. Lavern Dilfer, who had been deep to receive the presumed punt, made a flying tackle of Moran one yard short of the end zone. This 91-yard carry remained the franchise standard until 2005.

Three consecutive plunges left the ball about a foot away from pay dirt, where Friedman followed behind the left guard for the touchdown. Friedman’s point-after placement was blocked and New York lead 13-0.

Green Bay valiantly fought back. A long pass reception by McNally gave the defending champions the ball on New York’s 11-yard line, but the Giants defense stiffened and thwarted the advance on downs at the two-yard line. The Giants punted the ball back and a Dunn-to-Lewellen aerial quickly gave the Packers a first-and-goal on the four-yard line. Lewellen swept around right end for the touchdown, but Dunn’s placement missed. The third quarter ended with New York ahead 13-6.

Chris Cagle (12), Benny Friedman (1), New York Giants; Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (November 23, 1930)

Chris Cagle (12), Benny Friedman (1), New York Giants; Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (November 23, 1930)

Green Bay made one lengthy, exhausting advance in attempt to tie the game in the final period. They overcame a holding call at mid-field (a 15-yard penalty at the time) and moved the chains five times until the ball reached New York’s five-yard line. Herdis McCrary plunged twice for a yard, and Bo Melinda slammed ahead for a two-yard advance. The thrilled Polo Grounds crowd was caught up in the tension-packed goal-line stand, and on their feet exhorting the defense. Before the ball was snapped, several players on both sides of the line jumped early. The players held their positions once the ball was reset. On the snap, Dunn handed to McCrary who was stoned by the center of the Giants front wall as the Polo Grounds faithful roared their approval.

Neither team threatened to score again. The 13-7 final moved 11-2 New York ahead of 9-2 Green Bay in the league standings. The New York Times game summary unofficially gave the Packers the statistical edge in first downs 15 to eight, as well as passing yards 138 to 67. The Giants led in rushing yards, 172 to 160, most of which came from the lengthy jaunt by Moran. This was only the second loss the Packers had suffered in 24 months.

Backyard Brawling

The Giants had little time to celebrate their huge victory; for the third time their schedule had them playing three games in eight days. Next up was a Thanksgiving Day game at Staten Island against the coveted player who got away.

Prior to the 1929 season, Coach Andrews was instructed by Tim Mara and Dr. Harry March to offer a $4,000 contract to the graduated NYU star and triple-threat back Ken Strong. For reasons still unclear, Andrews offered Strong a contract for $3,000. Strong declined the offer and signed with the Stapletons, and would always relish the opportunity to show up the team that had underbid for his services.

Thompson Stadium was standing-room only with over 12,000 fans in attendance while hundreds more crowded outside the fences trying to view the action on the field. Although the Stapletons entered the game at 4-4-2 and never having beaten the Giants before, they had plenty of motivation. Aside from Strong, Mule Wilson had recently signed to Staten Island after being released by the Giants; Doug Wycoff was a member of the 1927 World Champion Giants; and the Giants first star player, Hinkey Haines, was an assistant coach on the sidelines.

The game was a physical altercation where both teams earned every inch of ground they were able to muster. Wilson was part of the Stapletons starting 11 and the leading ground gainer on the day, but his biggest impact was felt on defense. He repeatedly fought through blocks and dropped Friedman and Cagle in the backfield for losses and frustrated New York’s typically potent offense. The first score of the game came with just under 1:00 to play in the second quarter. Campbell blocked Strong’s punt at the Staten Island 20-yard line and recovered the loose ball in the end zone himself. The hold for the point-after try was mishandled and Friedman’s pass for Moran in the end zone was defended. The Giants led 6-0 at the half.

New York’s defense made a crucial stand in the third quarter after Jim Fitzgerald recovered a fumble on the Giants 20-yard line and a subsequent unnecessary roughness penalty set the ball on the five-yard line. Four consecutive rushes were stopped and the Giants took over on downs. Staten Island held their ground as well, and a Friedman punt from the end zone gave the home team the ball on the plus 45-yard line. Wycoff completed two passes to Bernie Finn to again set the ball five yards from New York’s goal line. This time Wycoff took the ball over for the score on second down and Strong’s placement was good and gave the Stapletons a 7-6 lead in front of their raucous crowd.

The struggle continued well into the fourth quarter. New York lost its captain Friedman to a leg injury, but the Giants were able to mount a last minute desperation drive despite his absence. Cagle completed two passes to Moran, giving the Giants a first and goal on the five-yard line but failed to score after three plunges and a missed a placement field goal attempt by Wiberg. The loss cost the Giants more than the services of Friedman. Their stay atop the standings was all too brief, as Green Bay had routed the Yellow Jackets in Frankford 25-7 and regained first place.

As the compressed schedule prevented Friedman from dressing for the Giants game against Brooklyn at the Polo Grounds on Sunday, Hagerty would get the start in his place. This promised to be another rugged contest for New York as not only did the Dodgers feature the NFL’s stingiest defense (they would finish the season allowing a league low 4.9 points per game), but had the motivation of yet another former New York star, Jack McBride, who led the league in scoring.

Chris Cagle, New York Giants (November 30, 1930)

Chris Cagle, New York Giants (November 30, 1930)

The crowd of 25,000 was not restricted just to fans of the home team hoping the Giants would keep pace with Green Bay, many fans came over the bridges from Brooklyn to support their team as well. New York significantly outplayed the Dodgers in the first half but only had six points to show for it, and again that lone score was the result of Campbell recovering a blocked punt. This time Campbell blocked Jim Mooney’s punt at Brooklyn’s 45-yard line, scooped the loose ball, evaded Mooney and rambled the distance uncontested into the end zone.

In the second half, Brooklyn’s offense began to find seams in the Giants front. Stumpy Thomason ran for several long gains and also cleared the way for McBride between the tackles. McBride ultimately doomed his former team in the fourth quarter on a 37-yard rush that set up his two-yard plunge for the tying score. His point-after placement gave Brooklyn a 7-6 edge that held up as the final score. McBride played the full 60 minutes, scored all the Dodgers points and essentially buried New York in second place as Green Bay annihilated the Stapletons 37-7 two boroughs away at Thompson Stadium. Rumors of a player revolt surfaced the day after the game and Andrews was abruptly dismissed as head coach.

A few weeks earlier, Mayor Jimmy Walker had devised a plan where three football games would be used for unemployment relief fund generation. Local school NYU would host Colgate University on December 6 in one benefit, the Army-Navy game at Yankee Stadium on December 13 was the second, and a new and exciting venture would be the Giants opposing a team of all-stars from Notre Dame, coached by Knute Rockne.

Allegedly, according to some players, Andrews became obsessed with facing Rockne and his All Stars. Practices became unusually brutal and he verbally berated the players, and threatened fines and releases. One story purported Friedman and Owen approaching Mara and seeking relief from the conditions that the team felt had become intolerable. He obliged and installed the two as co-player coaches for the remainder of the season. Friedman said years later: “(Andrews) just got himself all worked up thinking about this great meeting with Rockne. He thought he had to be tougher with us and pretty soon he lost control of himself completely.”

Funny Math

Although the 11-4 Giants still had a mathematical chance to move back ahead of the 10-2 Packers, it was unrealistic as their hopes were tethered to the unlikely probability of a Green Bay collapse. The season played out with New York winning its final two games at Frankford and Brooklyn, and Green Bay losing at the Bears and tied at Portsmouth. The Packers became the NFL’s second champions to repeat, and they did it by four-thousandths of a percentage point.

The method for calculating win percentage at this time is important to consider, and it had to do with the way the league handled ties. Essentially, tie games were disregarded as if the games had never been played. Green Bay’s record of 10-3-1 gave them a win percentage of 0.769 because the tie game at Portsmouth was discluded from the factoring – the 10 wins were divided by 13 total games. It was not until 1972 when the NFL changed the parameters and treated a tie game as a half-win and half loss. When this calculation is applied retroactively to the 1930 Packers record, their win percentage is 0.750 which would drop them to second place behind the 13-4 Giants win percentage of 0.765.

Despite the late season slump that dismantled New York’s championship hopes, the season was considered a qualified success. The Friedman-led squad led the NFL in scoring for the second year in a row and the Giants were a marquis attraction on all their road trips. The attendance at the Polo Grounds was sometimes curtailed by poor weather, but the turnout for the November game against Green Bay was very encouraging and hinted that pro football was beginning to catch on in New York. Friedman was a first-team All Pro, and Badgro and linemen Rudy Comstock and Joe Westoupal were second-team All Pro.

The Giants had one more game to play. The upcoming exhibition contest against the Notre Dame All Stars had no effect on league standings or post-season awards, but it meant everything in regards to gaining the respect and recognition of the general public. The entire NFL was vested in a strong performance from the Giants, even if the majority of the home fan base was not.

The Pros Versus the Joes

Like the Packers, Notre Dame repeated as champions in 1930. The original plan for the charity game was for the Giants to play the current Notre Dame team, but Coach Rockne was concerned about the impact of cross-country travel via rail on his team, as their season concluded at USC on December 7. His contingency plan was brilliant and more alluring to the public – an all-star team comprised of Notre Dame Alumni.

Rockne assembled the legendary Four Horsemen (Elmer Layden, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, Harry Stuhldreher); five of the Seven Mules (Adam Walsh, Joe Bach, Rip Miller, Noble Kizer, Ed Hunsinger); Jack Chevigny from the 1928 team; seven members from the 1929 national champions (Jack Cannon, John Law, Tim Moynihan, Ted Twomey, Joe Vezie, John Gebert, Jack Elder); Bucky O’Connor, Frank Carideo from the current 1930 team;, and two former Notre Dame players with NFL experience, Hunk Anderson and Glenn Carberry.

New York Giants - Notre Dame All-Stars (December 14, 1930)

New York Giants – Notre Dame All-Stars (December 14, 1930)

Although the Four Horsemen were by far the main attraction, the undercard billing was compelling. The press debated who the better tailback was, Carideo, who Rockne touted as “the best passer alive” or Friedman. Unlike many college coaches, Rockne was not opposed to football being a profession. He himself had played several years in the APFA/NFL predecessor Ohio League, which included a championship with the 1915 Massilon Tigers and legendary contests against Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs. But that did not mean Rockne did not believe college football was the superior brand, and he was not shy about public boasting either.

However, Rockne appeared to waver after committing to the game with the Giants. Just days after the acceptance, rumors circled that he was reconsidering and was privately concerned that he may have put himself into a potentially regretful position. Public outcry over this wavering demanded Rockne’s assurance that he and his all-star team make an appearance. The New York Times ran a story every day leading up to the game describing the unprecedented ticket demand for a Giants-All Stars match-up, which was to be paired with the Army-Navy game to be played at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Charles Stoneham, owner of the baseball Giants, donated the use of the stadium so all the proceeds would be used for the unemployment fund.

While Rockne may have been concerned about suffering personal embarrassment, the risk undertaken by the Giants was far more significant. They would be representing the institution of professional football as a whole. A loss to the college players could realistically damage the NFL’s public perception permanently. Mara and March received telegrams from owners and executives around the league offering their best wishes for success.

Rockne may have only had limited time to get his group ready, but he made the most of it and drilled his group hard. Gathering in South Bend on the Tuesday prior to the game in New York, Crowley said later that the two practices left him “stiffer and more sore than in all the years I played regularly lumped together.” Rockne explained, “At first I thought these fellows might not be able to put up a good game after several years’ layoff. But when I got to South Bend on Wednesday I found them a little older but was pleasantly surprised to see the way they handled the ball. This is not going to be merely a spectacle but a real game.”

The New York press covered the lead-up to the game daily, and the public’s anticipation grew to a near fever pitch. Both games that weekend were sold out in advance. The anticipation was just as fervent in South Bend. Over 1,500 alumni from Northern Illinois and the greater Chicago area had a police-escorted parade and reception with the All-Star team, as well as with the returning 1930 National Champions who had defeated USC 27-0.

The welcome mat would reach all the way East too. A reception and gala dinner with Mayor Walker was planned for the All Stars upon their arrival in the Big Apple. Rockne telegrammed Walker to confirm plans, as well as notify the fans in New York that he and his boys were confident: “We don’t expect to have our season’s winning record broken by your team of Giants.”

Rockne and his team arrived on Saturday morning and were paraded by a police escort from Grand Central Terminal to City Hall where the New York City Police Band and hundreds of devotees from the Notre Dame fan clubs of New York and New Jersey greeted their heroes enthusiastically. All of the local radio stations broadcast the reception, and Rockne, Mara and Walker were interviewed live on national radio.

Rockne held a closed practice inside the Polo Grounds, and insisted that all the Giants office personnel be prohibited from having any view of the field while the Notre Dame team went through their final drills. Rockne told the press afterward, “We have several surprises for the Giants and we don’t want to spoil any of them.” Rockne and Mayor Walker walked across the Harlem River to Yankee Stadium and watched Army defeat Navy 6-0. Mayor Walker was also scheduled to have dinner with Rockne and the All Stars the evening after the game versus the Giants on Sunday at the Vanderbilt Hotel with the local Notre Dame fan clubs.

The New York Times game day preview backed Rockne’s proclamations, “As to the game itself it promises to be one of the best, with the edge by no means favoring Friedman’s highly competent performers.” That afternoon the Polo Grounds was a house with divided loyalty. The grandstands behind the Giants side of the field were decorated with red and blue bunting while the Notre Dame side was augmented with navy blue and yellow. Pre-game ceremonies included marching bands from NYU and the Police Brigade and Rifle Guard playing “Victory March” (Notre Dame’s Fight Song) and “The Sidewalks of New York” over and over as the Polo Grounds seats filled. More than half of those in attendance were there to cheer on Rockne’s team.

As the two teams stepped onto the field for warmups, Rockne surveyed the competition. Acknowledging the Giants outweighed the All Stars by an average of 60 pounds per man; he approached Friedman and bargained, “We’ve got a lot of boys who think they’re football players. They may have a lot to learn today. How about some concessions?” The two bartered and agreed upon free substitution and shortened 12:30 quarters. Rockne returned to his team and attempted to buoy their confidence, “The Giants are heavy but slow. Go out there, score two or three quick touchdowns, and then defend. Don’t get hurt.”

The Giants size, strength and toughness was obvious to all. The one area that was grossly overlooked was their motivation and resolve. The Giants were sick and tired of hearing about the All Stars and how professional football was second rate. They had something to prove and they did it from snap-to-whistle on every play right from the opening kickoff.

On the first play from scrimmage, 170 pound Law lined up across from the 240 pound Owen. Law turned to referee Tom Thorp and asked, “Can you tell me sir, how much time is left?” Notre Dame was knocked backward on the first three plays, the last of which was finished in the end zone for a safety. The Giants had a 2-0 lead before the game was two minutes old and Rockne’s team finished the quarter with -12 yards from scrimmage. The beating only got worse from there.

Red Badgro (17), New York Giants (December 14, 1930)

Red Badgro (17), New York Giants makes tackle for a safety against Notre Dame All-Stars (December 14, 1930) – Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The New York Times game summary was a complete reversal from its preview the day before: “From start to finish the Giants had the South Benders utterly at their mercy.” Friedman put the game on ice for New York with two touchdowns in the second period. The first touchdown was a short plunge by Friedman. The second an impressive 20-yard rush that was set up by a brilliant play fake. Friedman read the defense at the line, dropped pack and pump-faked, which opened the center of the defense. He ran through the hole in the line, stepped around or through four tacklers and trucked Carideo on his way into the end zone. Referee Tom Thorpe said, “That was one of the finest calls and executions I’ve ever seen.” Friedman’s placement made the score 15-0.

During the action there were some memorable exchanges between the elevens. During the second quarter, Kizer told Walsh, “I’m going to pull out on this play and take the inside back on pass defense. So cover me here.” Walsh exclaimed, “What? And leave me here all alone? Not on your life!” On the snap, both players vacated their positions and sprinted for the bench. Crowley said, “They weren’t scared, they were smart, that’s all.”

Stuhldreher had an encounter with Butch Gibson. “He really smothered me, but he was a gentleman. He helped scrape the dirt off me and checked for broken bones. ‘I want to ask you something,’ he said. ‘I went to a small school called Grove City. You went to a big one, Notre Dame. Now do you know which one played better football?’ I couldn’t do anything but agree with him. I was afraid not to for fear that I’d get him even angrier. As it was, he got me many more times in the game.”

Benny Friedman with ball, New York Giants against Notre Dame All Stars (December 14, 1930)

Benny Friedman with ball, New York Giants against Notre Dame All Stars (December 14, 1930) – Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The All Stars managed one first down, which came on a 12-yard run by Enright, and their furthest advance was to their own 49-yard line. At halftime Rockne sought relief for his battered team. He approached March and said, “I came here to help with a charity and at a lot of trouble. You’re making us look bad. Slow up, will you? I don’t want to go home and be laughed at. Lay off next half.”  The Giants subbed out most of their starters for the second half, except for Turtle Campbell. How much drop off there was is debatable.

Consider that the second half replacement for Friedman at tailback was Moran, who was a catalyst for New York late in the season. Cagle, billed as the Giants next great star and the Army player who ignited Rockne’s 1928 “Win One for the Gipper” speech, subbed for Tiny Feather at half back. Burnett, the Giants third highest scorer, subbed for Sedbrook. The Giants had a deep bench and had many players were eager to step in and take their shots at the All Stars.

New York’s second team continued to play both brilliantly and brutally. A 30-yard pass from Moran to Campbell, followed by Moran’s placement, closed the scoring while defensively Notre Dame was kept off of the board. The final score was a resounding 22-0. Statistically it was worse. The Giants had eight first downs to Notre Dame’s one and outgained the All Stars 138 yards to 34. Notre Dame failed to complete a pass in nine attempts, with two intercepted. They also lost a fumble. After the game, Rockne told his team, “That was the greatest football machine I ever saw. I’m glad none of you got hurt.”

The game summaries were almost apologetic toward Rockne and his team. Readers were reminded that the game was played for charity ($115,153 was raised and put directly into the city’s fund for the unemployed) and that the All Stars had been assembled on short notice and had minimal practice time to get ready. The Giants were a practiced and battle-hardened unit, ready for full contact while many of the Notre Dame team had spent the season scattered around the country in coaching positions.

Stuhldreher said, “It wasn’t much of a football game. Rock had the idea that we could beat the pros, and I guess he sort of got carried away in the pregame publicity. But we did drum up a real good crowd for the game, and that was great…except that he got the Giants sore at us. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that opening kickoff. Layden caught the ball and was belted by all 11 Giants. They really whammed him. He staggered to his feet, took a dazed look at me in the huddle, shook his head, and asked, ‘Is this game over yet?’

A Victory for All

The reverberations from Giants victory were profound; nobody ever accused “post graduate” football as being inferior again. Although some fans continued to begrudge the pros, this contest can be marked as the starting point where the general public began to turn to the NFL as the favored version of the game. Press coverage for professional football began to be displayed on an equal plane with college football over the course of the decade. Football stadia began to see larger crowds on Sundays rather than Saturdays. The transition was slow, but it was steady, and by the end of World War II, the NFL had expanded coast-to-coast and was cultivating a national market via the new medium of television. College football experienced little growth and its attraction remained largely regional.

The Giants-All Stars game was the last Rockne coached. He was killed in a plane crash in Kansas on March 31, 1931. He remains a coaching legend, having pioneered and popularized the early passing game. His 0.881 winning percentage remains the highest of college coaches who have stood on the sideline for at least 100 games.

March turned over his interest in the Giants as Tim Mara handed the duties to his sons Jack (President) and Wellington (Secretary). Friedman was originally offered the head-coaching position of the Giants, but that offer was pulled when Friedman demanded an ownership interest in the team. After an injury plagued 1931 season, which included double-duty as head coach for Yale University, Friedman moved on to Brooklyn as player-coach of the Dodgers.

Tim Mara then offered the job to Owen, who was initially reluctant (he suggested Guy Chamberlain to Mara first) but ultimately accepted the role. Still with a lingering dissatisfaction of the late season swoon and ugly departure of Andrews, Mara wanted more than anything a strong, reliable man in charge who was able to withstand hard times. He said, “What I needed was a man’s man. What I wanted was a man who could manage other men, a man other men would respect. What I got was even more than I bargained for.”

Owen was the Giants steward for 23 seasons. He spanned the stretch when the NFL stabilized itself through the depression, tread water through World War II, transitioned from the Single Wing to the T-Formation, survived competition from the rival AAFC, overtook college football and closed the gap with major league baseball. Under his guidance, the Giants emerged as the NFL’s flagship franchise. They appeared in a league-high eight championships in that time. Owen and his Giants won two of those championships in memorable fashion on their home field in front of appreciative crowds. In both NFL Championship Games, in 1934 versus the Bears and 1938 versus the Packers, the league standard for championship-game attendance was set.

The legacy of the win over the Notre Dame All Stars cannot be overstated. The Giants’ home attendance for league games in 1930 was 16,000. It jumped to just over 24,000 the next season in 1931, despite the fact that team’s fortunes declined. The 1931 Giants finished 7-6-1 and were never a factor in the league race for first place. Changes took place after a losing season in 1932. The Giants built a new team. And the NFL created its own rules manual which intentionally differentiated it from the college game. The NFL realigned into two divisions and installed a post-season championship game that generated new fan interest. Prosperity that seemed unimaginable at the start of the decade was about to become unavoidable.

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Don Chandler, New York Giants (1963)

Don Chandler, New York Giants (1963)

By Larry Schmitt with contributions from Daniel Franck and Rev. Mike Moran

When most Giants fans think about a kicker making a clutch kick in a pressure situation, they most likely recall Matt Bahr or Lawrence Tynes kicking the Giants to the Super Bowl. There was a time when the odds would have been against those seemingly effortless kicks being successful. The game of football has evolved most significantly in the way goals are scored from the field. When the American Professional Football Association (APFA) was formed in 1920, the ball was larger and drop kicks were the favored method for field goals, while placements were typical for most points-after–touchdowns. Misses were common though, teams would often make just a few field goals over the course of a season and point-afters were never taken for granted.

The players who attempted these kicks did not come in off the bench. They were four-down players who played on both sides of the ball. When an offense was stopped on third down, one of the backs, or even a lineman, dropped back for a punt or field goal attempt. If the field goal was missed, he did not sulk back to the sideline; he lined up in his defensive position and continued to play.

The Giants entered the NFL in 1925 with Jim Thorpe, one of the most famous football players of his day, on the roster. Aside from his exploits as an athletic runner and fierce tackler, Thorpe was a legendary drop kicker. Thorpe’s tenure with the Giants was brief, being aged and out of shape, he lasted only three games before being released. New Yorkers never saw him attempt any of his famous drop kicking exploits in the Giants red and blue. But they were once treated to a drop kicking exhibition between Thorpe, then of the Cleveland Indians, against Charles Brickley of the New York Brickley Giants at the Polo Grounds in December 1921 four years before the NFL’s New York Giants were formed.

Charles Brickley and Jim Thorpe, New York Brickley Giants (December 3, 1921)

Charles Brickley and Jim Thorpe – Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The occasion marked the first professional football contest in New York City and took place at halftime. Each man was good on six of twelve attempts. Brickley took the honors of the longest successful attempt from an impressive 60-yards out. In the actual game, Thorpe was good on a 40-yard attempt and also drop-kicked a point-after in the Indians’ 17-0 triumph. Unfortunately, the added attraction of Thorpe’s drop kicks was not enough to keep the fledgling New York franchise afloat, and Brickley’s Giants disbanded after the game.

The APFA/NFL followed the college football rulebook for its first 12 seasons. In college, placements were required for point-after attempts through 1922. Beginning in 1923, a player could choose between a drop kick or placement attempt. Place kicks could only take place behind the line of scrimmage while a drop kick could take place from anywhere on the field (the NFL abolished this seemingly obsolete rule in 1998.) The ball at this time was much broader around its circumference and closely resembled a rugby ball. This facilitated drop kicking as the ball bounced true as it descended on end to the ground, and also allowed for a greater surface area for contact on the kicking foot. The kicker would either kick the ball with the top of his foot or instep as it hit the ground or just after it bounced.

From 1920 through 1926, the goal posts were on the goal line in front of the end zone and there were no in-bounds lines (later known as hash marks) on the field. This combination often caused attempts to be made from wide angles, greatly increasing their difficulty. To help alleviate this, the goal posts were moved to the end line at the back of the end zone in 1927, but the added distance proved to be nothing more than a different challenge. Drop kicking for distance was never an issue, controlling the flight of the ball was the premier challenge.

The goal posts themselves had the same dimensions as today. The crossbar was 10 feet above the ground and 18 feet, four inches in width. Missed field goals resulted in the defensive team taking over possession of the ball on the 20-yard line, regardless of where the ball was kicked or the previous line of scrimmage (essentially a touchback.) Kickoffs were off a tee from the 40-yard line.

The record for the longest drop kick field goal is 45 yards by the Canton Bulldogs’ Wilbur “Pete” Henry, who connected on two in a game against the Toledo Maroons on December 19, 1922. However, there are three unofficial 50-yard drop kicks that remain off the books because they could not be verified. The first was by Henry in November 1922. Then John “Paddy” Driscoll of the Chicago Cardinals had one in September 1924 and another in November 1925. Henry’s official record of 45 yards remained the longest successful kick of any kind in professional football for 12 years.

Mixed Styles, Unpredictable Results

The very first points in New York Football Giants history (the Giants owned by Tim Mara) came via a drop kick field goal off the foot of Matt Brennan on October 15, 1925 at Frankford Stadium. The 15-yard kick gave the Giants a 3-2 second quarter lead over the Yellowjackets, but the Giants went on to lose 5-3. The next day at the Polo Grounds, Thorpe missed a 48-yard drop kick field goal in the third quarter of a 14-0 loss to the Yellowjackets. Thorpe was released later in the week and then played two games with the Rock Island Independents where he failed to register any points.

The Giants first win came two weeks later, a 19-0 triumph at the Polo Grounds over the Cleveland Bulldogs. Dutch Hendrian registered the first successful point-after for New York, a second quarter drop kick. This was somewhat unique in that most point-after attempts were from placement, a tendency that endured from the early college rules. Hendrian had the first multi-field goal game for the Giants on November 11 versus the Rochester Jeffersons at the Polo Grounds. He drop-kicked two goals over in the first half from 35 and 25 yards out.

The Giants fielded a competitive team their inaugural season, and finished fourth overall with an 8-4 record. As was the case with most teams, the kicking duties were handled by a group of players. Small rosters and restricted substitution demanded versatility by all team members; specialized talents were a luxury decades in the future. The more a player could do well, the more valuable he was to his team.

The most valuable player of the 1925 Giants was fullback Jack McBride. Although official statistics were not recorded until 1932, game accounts indicate McBride was usually New York’s leading passer, and either first or second in rushing along with fleet- footed halfback Hinkey Haines. McBride handled the bulk of the Giants kicking. His point-after in the 7-0 win over the Buffalo Bisons on November 3 at the Polo Grounds was the first successful placement for the Giants, and his 30-yard field goal versus the Dayton Triangles on November 29 was New York’s first placement from the field. McBride led the Giants with seven point-after conversions during their inaugural season.

The early part of the 1926 season highlighted how no kicks, whether dropped or placed, were ever sure things during this era. The season opener saw McBride good on two placement point-afters and Paul Hogan good on a drop kick point-after in a 21-0 win at the Hartford Blues on September 26. The Giants 7-6 win the following week at Providence on October 3 versus the Steamroller was preserved by a blocked drop kick point-after attempt in the third quarter. New York suffered back-to-back 6-0 losses to Frankford on October 16 and 17 that featured 42- and 32-yard placement field goals by Johnny Budd at Frankford Field, but the next day at the Polo Grounds he failed on his point-after try.

The early NFL record for consecutive point-afters made was by Henry, who converted 49 straight attempts from 1920 through 1928 while playing for three teams that included a brief tenure with the Giants in 1927, although he did not register a kick while with New York. The second longest streak was 26 straight by Elmer Oliphant of the Buffalo All-Americans in 1921. Although McBride never had a streak approaching those two, he did convert 15 point after placements during the 1926 season while Hogan drop-kicked three more. McBride also converted New York’s only field goal, a 25-yard placement at Ebbets Field against the Brooklion Horsemen – an amalgam of the NFL’s Brooklyn Lions and the AFL’s Brooklyn Horsemen – on November 25.

The shape of the ball gradually changed over the course of the decade. Drop kicks became increasingly rare as the circumference of the ball narrowed to facilitate the nascent passing game. The college football rulebook listed a circumference around the middle of 22.5 inches and 23 inches in length for 1928. The size was reduced to 22 inches around the middle and 22.5 inches in length in 1931. This change greatly impacted drop kicking as the end became more pointed. Not only was the required true bounce more difficult to obtain, the spin of the ball coming off the foot changed, which negatively impacted accuracy.

McBride handled the bulk of the kicking chores for New York the next two seasons. The Giants lone field goal in 1928 was Bruce Caldwell’s drop kick on October 28 at Yankee Stadium, providing the margin of victory in a 10-7 decision over the rival New York Yankees.

The most sought after players in the single platoon era were known as Triple Threats, a player who could run, pass and kick (tackling on defense was a given, calling them a quadruple threat would’ve been redundant.) Two players who fit this rare mold were fullback Ernie Nevers and tailback Benny Friedman.

The Giants obtained Friedman in 1928 when Mara purchased the entire Detroit Wolverines franchise, and immediately installed him as the face of the Football Giants and centerpiece of the team. Friedman was deservedly renowned for his ability to manipulate the bloated ball of its day through the air, but he was the Giants primary kicker as well. He passed for a professional record 20 touchdown passes in 1929, ran for two others and kicked 20 point-afters from placement.

Tony Plansky converted an extra point on November 3 at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Bears, and a drop-kick field goal on December 1 at the Polo Grounds versus Nevers and the Chicago Cardinals. This game at the Polo Grounds took place three days after the oldest record standing in the NFL record book was established. On Thanksgiving Day at Wrigley Field, Nevers ran for six touchdowns, a standard that has been tied twice. The mark that has proved unattainable though was the total points of 40, as Nevers drop kicked four point-afters. He accounted for all the point in the Cardinals 40-6 win over the Bears.

Nevers scored two touchdowns and dropped a point over in the game at New York, but Planksy dropped the decisive kick over from 42-yards as time expired for a 24-21 Giants win, and in the process also set the mark for the longest field goal in franchise history at the time. Planksy’s 1929 conversions are the last recorded drop kicks in Giants history. Friedman led New York in point-afters again in 1930, and also registered New York’s only successful field goal of the season. The last minute placement from 42 yards gave the Giants a 9-7 win versus the Stapletons at Staten Island on November 2, and also tied Plansky’s record for length.

Friedman suffered a severe knee injury in 1931 and missed the second half of the season. He left the Giants during the off season after a contract dispute to play and coach for the upstart Brooklyn Dodgers. Versatile wingback Hap Moran assumed the role of place kicker for the Giants, leading the team with eight point-afters and the team’s only field goal of 1931.

Hints of Specialty

The Giants found another versatile back to help fill the void left by Friedman in 1932, and he was very familiar to the Giants, having lost him in a recruitment competition to Staten Island a few seasons earlier. Ken Strong was a phenomenal talent – he was once compared to Thorpe and Nevers by Grantland Rice – and was one of the last pure Triple Threats. As a whole, New York had a down year in 1932. There were a mere seven point-afters registered on the season and not a single field goal – they were shut out from the scoreboard entirely four times.

The NFL created its own rule book in 1933. In addition to relocating the goal posts forward to the goal line, in bounds lines were placed 10 yards in from the sidelines. This assured plays from scrimmage would originate closer to the center of the field and reduced the instances of downs being wasted merely to move the ball away from the boundaries.

That season Strong recorded the first free kick field goal in Giants history. On November 26, at the Polo Grounds against Green Bay, Dale Burnett made a fair catch of a short punt by the Packers on the 30-yard line. Knowing of the rarely-used rule, and unable to resist the opportunity for an uncontested attempt by a skilled kicker, Coach Steve Owen immediately called for a free-kick field goal. Strong’s attempt was true and through the upright, giving the Giants their final points in a 17-6 win. Strong’s kick was believed to be the first-known free-kick field goal for many years until it was recently discovered that George Abramson of the Packers made a 35-yard free-kick field goal at Comiskey Park against the Chicago Cardinals on November 8, 1925. Strong’s kick is now recognized as the second free-kick field goal in NFL history and remains the only one converted in Giants history.

In 1934 the ball also shrank to its final dimensions: 21.25 inches in circumference and 21.5 inches in length. This prolate spheroid was aerodynamically designed for passing, and inadvertently caused a significant shift in the kicking game.

With drop kicking now all but gone, save for a very few holdovers, the preferred method of place kicking was the straight-ahead approach. This featured similar leg mechanics as the drop kick, and likewise provided comparable accuracy and distance. The major difference between the two methods is that in the placement kick, the foot is pointed upward when contact is made with the ball. In the drop kick, the foot is pointed downward (essentially the same motion and alignment as a punt). Strong, who exclusively placekicked in the NFL but occasionally drop kicked in college, noted his thoughts on the differences between the styles in his 1950 book “Football Kicking Techniques”. He said the shape of the ball was an overrated argument against the drop kick. In fact, he said drop kicking provided the offensive team the advantage of a tenth blocker, who was lost as the holder for placements. Strong said placements were the preferable method in inclement weather.

The changes had an impact on the field. The improved distance aspect was proven without a doubt on October 7, 1934 when Detroit’s Glenn Presnell set the NFL’s new distance record with a 54-yard field goal in a 3-0 win at Green Bay’s City Stadium. He led the NFL with 13 point-afters and 64 total points (boosted by five touch downs) that season.

New York tailback Harry Newman shared the kicking responsibilities with Strong for two seasons, and set a team record that would stand for nearly 30 years when he connected on three field goal attempts at Fenway Park against the Boston Redskins on October 7. Newman’s performance was clutch as well. He tied the game 13-13 early in the fourth quarter, and then sent the winner through with less than four minutes to play for the Giants 16-13 victory.

Strong reset New York’s longest field goal standard by two yards on October 21 in a 17-7 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at the Polo Grounds with a 44-yard placement. However, his signature performance came two months later in the NFL Championship Game on December 2. Strong’s 17 points (two touchdowns, two point-afters and a field goal) were a critical factor in the Giants upset of the 13-0 Bears for the Giants second NFL title, and was the franchise post-season standard for 69 years.

Strong did the Bears in again the following season. In the middle of the third quarter at a rainy Wrigley Field, New York and Chicago were tied 0-0. Strong exhibited composure repeatedly under challenging circumstances, while also nursing a separated shoulder. The Giants mustered a drive on the sloppy field, but stalled at the Chicago 15-yard line. Strong’s initial field goal attempt from 22 yards hit the left upright, but the Bears jumped offside and the Giants received a new set of downs on the 10-yard line.

The Chicago Daily Tribune described the sequence that began with a fourth-and-goal from the six: “Strong went back to the 14-yard line and made a place kick, but both lines jumped offside and the field goal did not count. Strong again stood on the 14 and kicked. Both sides were again offside and his perfect placement was wasted. On the next attempt Strong barely got the ball over the bar. His teammates had been considerate enough to stay onside this time, however, although the Bears were pushing them around when the ball was snapped.” Once in the lead, Giants head Coach Steve Owen depended on Strong’s leg for punting, as the Giants engaged in a field position battle with Chicago and prevailed 3-0. Most surprisingly, Strong outdueled the NFL’s most highly regarded kicker of the time, “Automatic” Jack Manders, who missed all three of his field goal attempts.

After the 1935 season, Strong left the Giants for the New York Yankees of the new rival AFL. During that period, with their own kicking situation in flux, the Giants were victimized by one of the all-time great drop-kickers, Earl “Dutch” Clark. On November 18, 1936 at the University of Detroit Stadium, Clark drop-kicked a field goal and three point-afters in the 38-0 Lions victory. These were the last successful drop kicks against the Giants in the regular season.

Tillie Manton was one of three New York players to kick field goals in 1937. The one he made on September 26, 1937 at Forbes Field ranks among the highest in degree of difficulty in team history. In the middle of the fourth quarter of a 7-7 game, the Giants embarked on a 68-yard drive that stalled on Pittsburgh’s 5-yard line. The ball was set for play on the in-bounds line, which were only 15-yards in from the sideline. On third down New York attempted a play to move the ball toward the center of the field, but the Pirates overloaded their defense and forced a field goal attempt at an acute angle, as the goal posts were located on the goal line. The New York Times game summary described the situation: “Manton had to try for his winning field goal from far over on the side of the field. Had it been much farther over, Tillie would have had to boot from the Pittsburgh bench. The angle was simply horrible, and when the Giants craftily went off side to lessen the angle by bringing the ball back, Pittsburgh just as craftily refused to accept the penalty. The Manton kick had to be perfect and straight as a die to click. Fortunately it was.” This impressive kick would be New York’s last fourth quarter game winner for 13 seasons.

Ultimately, the heir apparent to Strong proved to be another multi-talented back. Ward Cuff came to the Giants in 1937 with no prior kicking experience, but he was tutored personally by Owen. Cuff only kicked two field goals his rookie season while he fine-tuned his new skill. A milestone was set by a member of the old guard that year. On September 19 Detroit’s Clark made the last recorded drop kick field goal in professional football history – a 17-yard attempt in the second quarter of a 16-7 win over the Cardinals.

The next season, Ralph Kerchival of the Brooklyn Dodgers registered the final regular season drop kick point-afters on November 13 against Philadelphia at Ebbets Field. Kerchival registered six total points in the Dodgers 32-14 win with three point-afters and a field goal. Interestingly, Kerchival converted the field goal and first two point-afters as placements, but drop kicked the third point-after. The New York Times speculated Kerchival drop-kicked the final point “just to prove his versatility.”

Cuff assumed the role as the Giants primary kicker in 1938, and he led the league with five field goals and 19 point-afters as the Giants won the Eastern Division title. His two field goals and two point-afters provided the edge as the Giants won their third overall championship, and became the first team two win two NFL Championship games, 23-17 over Green Bay in a hard fought contest.

Ward Cuff (14) and Ken Strong, New York Giants (1939)

Ward Cuff (14) and Ken Strong, New York Giants (1939)

Cuff shared the kicking duties with Strong in 1939, who returned to the Giants from exile for one season. The AFL folded after the 1937 season. Strong was barred from the NFL but played for the Giants farm team in Jersey City in 1938, then rejoined the big-league Giants for the 1939 campaign. He suffered a back injury early in the season at Washington and remained a kicking specialist the remainder of the year. Once one of pro football’s last Triple Threats, Strong emerged as one of the very first specialists. (Christian “Mose” Kelsch of the 1933-34 Pittsburgh Pirates is the first documented kicking specialist, although he did occasionally perform as a back and had 11 carries over two seasons.)

Cuff’s biggest day took place at the Polo Grounds on October 22 in front of the second-largest crowd in pro football history at the time. He was three-for-three on field goals and added a point-after, to give the Giants a seemingly comfortable 16-0 fourth quarter advantage over the Bears. However, Sid Luckman shredded the Giants normally stout defense. Nevertheless, while Chicago scored two quick touchdowns on only four plays, the Giants held on for the 16-13 win.

The 1939 Eastern Division Champion Giants were known as a “money team,” who pulled out close games with big plays at crucial moments. Cuff was one of Owen’s “money men,” and his seven successful field goals that season established a franchise high and helped further that reputation. Bears Owner and Head Coach George Halas later recognized Owen’s early emphasis on specialty as an important influence on overall strategy, “Steve was the first to stress the importance of defense and the advantage of settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. Every team strives today to do what Owen was doing twenty years ago.”

The new mark for the Giants longest field goal surprisingly came off the foot of Len Barnum. His 47-yard kick at the Polo Grounds against the Cardinals on November 11 eclipsed the standard twice set by Strong in 1934 and 1935 by three yards, and was the longest kick in the NFL in 1939.

Cuff led the NFL in field goals two more times in his career as a Giant, and broke Friedman’s point-after mark with 26 in 1943. Cuff was traded to the Cardinals after the 1945 season, and left as New York’s all-time leading scorer. The Giants retired Cuff’s #14 in 1946 [though it was temporarily brought back into service in 1961 for Y.A. Tittle.]

The NFL’s final successful drop-kick took place in the NFL Championship Game at Wrigley field on December 21. Ray McLean of the Bears tallied Chicago’s final point in a 37-9 win over the Giants when he drop-kicked the point after. The last drop-kick in pro football until the 2005 season took place on November 28, 1948 in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), but it was not by design. San Francisco’s Joe Vetrano lined up for a placement point-after in Kezar Stadium against Cleveland. The snap was low and the holder lost control of the ball. Amid the chaos, Vetrano scooped the ball, evaded the rush and successfully drop-kicked the ball through the uprights, a magnificent ad-lib performance.

Owen and the Giants took advantage of the war era’s relaxed substitution rules and lured Strong out of retirement in time for the 1944 season. It proved to be a fortuitous move for both sides. Strong led the NFL in field goals and the Giants won the Eastern Conference. Perhaps to underscore his intended role as a specialist, Strong insisted on not wearing shoulder pads or a helmet during games. Strong set the franchise record for point-afters with 32 in 1946 as the Giants again won the Eastern Conference. Strong retired for good after the 1947 season. Over the course of his final four seasons as a kicking specialist, he converted 102 of 104 point-after attempts in an era when misses were still commonplace. Strong’s #50 was retired in 1947 and he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

On October 7, 1945, a record that may prove unbreakable was set by Green Bay’s Don Hutson. In the second quarter of a game against Detroit at the Wisconsin State Fair Grounds, Hutson caught four touchdown passes and kicked five point-afters. The record 29 total points scored in one quarter still stands today. Hutson added two more point afters in the second half, bringing his total to 31 points on the day, which at the time was the second most points scored by an individual in a game after Never’s 40 point game.

Len Younce, an All-Pro tackle, was New York’s primary kicker in 1948. He struggled on field goals, converting just one of seven, but was 36 for 37 on point-afters which broke Strong’s record. Looking to improve in the field goal department, a unique specialist joined the Giants in 1949.

Perceived Handicaps as an Advantage

“The Toeless Wonder” Ben Agajanian is one of the most unique and influential kickers in pro football history. After losing four toes on his right foot in an elevator accident when he was in college, Agajanian had a cobbler fabricate a squared-off cleat for kicking. This actually may have provided an advantage for him as with the straight-ahead style he was able to get more surface area of his kicking foot onto the ball than other kickers. Agajanian broke his arm in a 1945 preseason game with Pittsburgh and became a kicking specialist for the remainder of his career. He spent two seasons with the Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC before joining the 1949 Giants.

Agajanian had an excellent first season in New York. He set the Giants field goal record with eight, and his 35 point-afters were just one short of tying Younce’s 36 from the previous season. However, he was released after the season. A kicking specialist was considered an impractical luxury on a 32-man roster. Versatility was still the rule of the day.

End Ray Poole filled the role capably for the next three seasons. Being a lineman, he had good range off his strong right leg, but he endured accuracy issues his first season. He did, however, prove himself to be reliable under pressure. On November 5, 1950, Poole capped off a furious come-from-behind effort at the Polo Grounds against Washington. New York trailed 21-14 late in the fourth quarter when they mounted an 89-yard march to a touchdown. Poole’s point-after tied the game at 21-21 with two minutes to play. Poole kicked off, and the Redskins made an ill-fated attempt at a razzle-dazzle play. Tom Landry intercepted a lateral following a pass completion on the Washington 41-yard line. Charlie Conerly completed a pass to the 33-yard line and Poole made the winning kick from 40 yards with four seconds on the clock.

Poole’s field goal accuracy greatly improved in 1951 and the Giants reaped the benefits. He established the new team mark for field goals in a season with 12, while tying the record for three field goals in a game twice during the season, and a third time in 1952 before retiring.

New York’s kicking duties in 1953 were shared by multi-purpose backs Randy Clay and Frank Gifford, who combined to covert three of 12 field goal attempts. A new coaching staff, headed by Jim Lee Howell, and rosters expanding to 33 created another opportunity for the specialist Agajanian, who had returned from retirement to kick for the Los Angeles Rams in 1953. During that season, Baltimore Colts Bert Rechichar set a new record for field goal length when he connected on a 56-yarder at Memorial Stadium against the Bears.

Agajanian seemed determined to redefine exactly what it meant to be a specialist. He maintained a house in California and wanted to be with his family and keep an eye on his private business interests as much as possible. Agajanian proposed to Howell that as a pure kicker he did not need to be present for the full week of practice. Howell complied, and Agajanian flew home on Sunday nights and returned to New York on Thursdays throughout the regular season.

No one had ever seen anyone as meticulous with his craft as Agajanian, which is probably why he was befriended by the analytical Landry. Agajanian broke down every aspect of kicking to a science. He was the first to insist the center snap the ball to the holder with the laces facing forward, even noting the number of revolutions the ball should make during its flight. He instructed holders on how to simultaneously turn the ball as they set it to the ground, straight up-and-down. Agajanian would only have the holder set the ball on an angle if there was a strong wind.

He also designed the bowed-line formation, with the outside blockers at the wing position, to kick-protect. Later, during his 24-year career as a kicking coach, Agajanian would develop the three-steps-back, two-steps-to-the-side set for the sidewinder approach to the ball. Landry said Agajanian did more to advance kicking than any other individual in history.

The acquisition of Agajanian in 1954 paid immediate dividends for New York. Agajanian advanced the Giants single-season field goal record to 13, and he twice kicked three in a game. Prior to the 1956 season, team management became disenchanted with his absence during the week and rescinded his traveling privileges. Agajanian retired from kicking, but agreed to coach his potential replacements Gifford and rookie punter Don Chandler during training camp. They struggled with the additional responsibilities during the first three weeks of the regular season and the Giants acquiesced on Agajanian’s demands and brought him back to New York. Not only did Agajanian retain his special dispensation to leave for the West Coast during the week, but he was reprieved during games as well. Chandler continued to handle kickoffs, as he possessed had a powerful leg. Agajanian’s role was refined to handling only field goals and point-afters.

Agajanian wore a tennis shoe on his planting foot and removed the cleats from his specialized kicking shoe to neutralize the effects of the frozen Yankee Stadium field during the NFL Championship Game against the Bears on December 30. His two first quarter field goals gave the Giants a 13-0 advantage on their way to a 47-7 rout, New York’s fourth championship and first in 18 years. He was cited in The New York Times game summary for his performance: “Then, too, there was 38-year old Ben Agajanian, whose exclusive assignment with the Giants is place-kicking. His talented toe accounted for 11 points. He booted five of six conversions – the lone failure was his first as a Giant – and two field goals.”

Ben Agajanian, New York Giants (1957)

Ben Agajanian, New York Giants (1957)

During his final year with New York in 1957, Agajanian kicked the franchise’s first 50-yard field goal. The fourth quarter kick on October 13 not only broke Strong’s 17-year old record for the Giants longest field goal, it proved to be the longest field goal ever made in Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Agajanian retired to the West Coast after the season. He left the Giants with two team records aside from the longest field goal: the most point-afters with 160 and the most consecutive point-afters with 80. Agajanian was New York’s third highest career scorer with 295 points, after Strong’s 351 and Cuff’s 319.

Agajanian was again lured from retirement, this time by the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960. He kicked for five more teams until retiring for good in 1965, where he then embarked on a long coaching career. There have been several earnest attempts to get Agajanian elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in recent years, but he has yet to receive the honor.

There were big shoes to fill following Agajanian’s departure. It was appropriate that they were filled by another kicker who wore a square-toed cleat.

A Star is Born

Pat Summerall was born with his right foot backward. Doctors performed an operation where the foot was broken, turned around and reset. It seemed unlikely that Summerall would become pro football’s first universally-celebrated kicking specialist when he was included in a trade with defensive back Linden Crow between the Chicago Cardinals and the Giants. Summerall was a two-way end who also had some kicking ability, but was erratic. He had never had a season where he converted 50% of his field goal attempts and often missed point-afters.

His mentor was Landry, who while serving as the Giants punter had spent time on the practice field with Agajanian. He observed Agajanian and engaged in discussions dealing with their respective crafts. Landry mentored Summerall his first camp with New York, and the new kicker acknowledged that as the turning point of his career. “Landry made sure that the center knew exactly how many times the ball had to spin between leaving his hand and being caught by the quarterback, so that when he put it on the ground, the laces would be facing away from me. That was the level of precision, and professionalism between teammates, that we were held to. Landry paid attention to every kick and every detail of what I was doing. He said if you miss to the right, this is what you’re doing wrong. If you miss to left, this is what you’re doing wrong. And when you practice, make sure you have someone who knows what’s going on because it doesn’t do any good to practice bad habits.”

The attention to detail paid off, as Summerall became a household name making big kicks in pressure situations, even if it was a role he did not necessarily relish. “I’m thinking if we keep making first downs they won’t have to call on me. Sometimes the pressure is terrible. If you miss, there’s no second chance. It’s as tough as being a pinch hitter in baseball.”

Summerall’s first climactic field goal served as an overture for New York’s now legendary 1958 season. At Yankee Stadium on November 9, the Giants engaged in a back-and-forth battle with the Colts, who were without Johnny Unitas. Having just yielded a touchdown that tied the game 21-21 in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Giants advanced. A mix of Gifford rushes and Conerly passes set the ball, 4th-and-3, at the Baltimore 21-yard line. The snap and placement were imperfect, but Summerall delivered. “When I saw the laces were facing the right sideline I knew I had to kick the ball a little to the left,” said Summerall. “The ball always fades to the side with the laces.” The kick went through at 2:40 and the Giants defense held on for the win.

This just set the stage for the dramatic season finale on a snow-covered field against the Browns (story here).

Summerall had one of the great seasons for a kicker in 1959. He had five games where he kicked three field goals, including a 9-3 win over the Cardinals where he accounted for all the Giants points. He also had another occasion where he was relied upon to finish a come-from-behind surge. On September 23 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, New York trailed the Rams 21-17 entering the final period. Summerall’s 14-yard field goal cut the lead to 21-20 with 13:30 left to play. The teams traded punts for the rest of the period before the Giants began their final advance. Conerly passed New York to the Los Angeles 11-yard line where the drive stalled with under two minutes on the clock. Summerall was good on his 18-yard attempt and the defense preserved the 23-21 victory.

Charlie Conerly (42) and Pat Summerall (88)

Charlie Conerly (42) and Pat Summerall (88)

In 1959, Summerall became the first Giant to lead the NFL in field goals (20) since Strong in 1944. He also established a team record with 90 total points by a kicker. Summerall’s final season in 1961 saw him set a new franchise mark with 46 point-afters, of which the final 129 point-afters were made consecutively without a miss.

Double Duty

As is their tradition, the Giants looked to the familiar as they embarked upon a new era. Strong was brought in to mentor Chandler and Jerry Hillebrand during training camp. Typically, the straight-ahead kicker would line himself up approximately one-and-a-half yards behind the holder. On the approach, the kicker would take a short step forward with the kicking foot, a long, hopping step with the plant foot to generate forward momentum, then swing the kicking foot at the ball with the ankle locked and the foot in an upward facing position.

There was some frustration on Strong’s behalf as Chandler refused to lock his ankle, yet he repeatedly was good on his attempts, even from long distances. Despite his unorthodox style, Chandler was awarded the job, possibly to Strong’s consternation. Chandler said later, “Basically my technique is all wrong, I cut across the ball too much. They pointed it out to me when I was a rookie, but decided not to change me because I was getting good results.”

Ken Strong, New York Giants (1962)

Ken Strong, New York Giants (1962)

Strong said, “Don has the most powerful leg drive I’ve ever seen. The most important thing I had to do was help him build confidence. Some years ago some other coach told him he would never become a good place-kicker because of the way he whips his foot across the ball. We had to get that idea out of his mind. After that it was just a matter of showing him the right steps and follow through.”

As punter and kicker, Chandler helped to save one of the Giants 36 roster spots. But he did more than that as his success as a kicker was both immediate and profound. He tied the Giants record for three field goals in a 29-13 win at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on September 23. In the rematch with the Eagles at Yankee Stadium on November 18, Chandler eclipsed the record when he made four field goals in a 19-14 win. Chandler kicked four more field goals in the Eastern Division clinching 26-24 win at Wrigley Field against the Bears.

Chandler became the first New York kicker to surpass 100 total points with 104 in 1962. He set a team record with 47 point-afters and added 17 field goals. As impressive as those marks were, they did not last long. In 1963 Chandler had 106 total points on 18 field goals and 52 point-afters, a franchise standard which still stands today.

A game ball was awarded to Chandler after his four-field goal effort in a 33-6 win at Cleveland on October 27. His workload on the day – aside from the four field goals – included three point-afters, eight kickoffs and two punts. On December 1 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Chandler set another team record with a 53-yard field goal. The kick came midway through the fourth quarter and tied the game with the Cowboys at 27-27. It also tied for the third longest field goal in NFL history at the time. New York went on to win 34-27. Chandler said, “I could have kicked a field goal from 60 yards today. The wind was that strong. My kick was good by at least 10 yards.”

Chandler slumped in 1964 after his back-to-back great seasons. He missed more field goals than he made and totaled just 54 points. After the season, Chandler requested a similar travel allowance for 1965 that had been granted Agajanian in the past. Chandler wanted time during the week to be at home in Oklahoma to attend his insurance business. Instead he was traded to Green Bay.

The Giants kicking situation in the 1965 season was an unmitigated disaster. Four players combined to convert four field goals in 25 attempts – a 16% success rate that wouldn’t even be considered adequate in the 1920’s. The step New York took to rectify the situation was a bold one, and it changed pro football forever.

The Catalyst for Revolution

Pete Gogolak was already a player of significant renown. He was an innovative place kicker on the Buffalo Bills AFL championship teams in 1964 and 1965. He led the AFL in field goals in 1965 and converted nearly 63% of his field goals overall. What distinguished him though was his angular approach to the ball. He became known as the first “sidewinder.”

However, Gogolak was not the first sidewinder in football. There were a handful of college players with a soccer background (as did Gogolak) in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s who experimented with the style, but they were mostly regarded as an eccentric curiosity and none advanced to the pro level.

After playing out his option with the Bills, Gogolak became a free agent. The AFL teams had a gentleman’s agreement not to sign one another’s players, but there was no such agreement between the rival leagues themselves. The Giants were the first team to contact Gogolak, and they offered him a contract that more than doubled his previous season’s salary, while the Bills offered just a modest raise. “I signed with the Giants and made three times as much as I made with the Bills. I signed for $35,000. They gave me a four-year, no-cut contract. Then you know what happened. The AFL started calling NFL players and the war started, and basically a few months later the two leagues merged. So maybe I started something. I not only started the soccer-style kick, but maybe I started the merger.”

Gogolak’s contract was the highest salary ever paid to a kicking specialist at that time. Wellington Mara stated that Gogolak’s agent assured the Giants that Gogolak was indeed able to be signed without any complication. Mara said, “We honor contracts of other organizations just like we honor the ones in our own league. We would not have talked to Gogolak, or any other player, without his becoming a free agent.”

Outrage from the AFL was expected, but not all within the NFL were congratulating the Giants on their coup. The Bears influential owner George Halas carefully stated his thoughts: “Legally there’s no question that the Giants had the right to sign Gogolak. But I think it was a mistake in judgment because of what it’s leading to [inferring a salary-escalating competition between the leagues]. But I also think this can be corrected in the future.” When asked if a mutual agreement could be established between the leagues, Halas said, “I don’t know, but I think it’s the logical thing to anticipate.”

Contrary to popular belief, Gogolak was not the first player to change leagues. In 1961, end Willard Dewvall left the Bears and signed with the Houston Oilers, but that move received little attention as Dewvall was not a player of Gogolak’s stature. Also, a player leaving the established NFL to an upstart league was not a new phenomenon. Many NFL players jumped to the AAFC in the 1940’s and to the Canadian Football League (CFL) in the 1950’s during bidding wars. The 1960’s NFL was still dominated by owners who had survived the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II by being frugal. But this unprecedented transaction of the NFL taking a player from a rival league at a significantly higher salary implied an acknowledgement of legitimacy toward the AFL. A future movement toward integration had become inevitable.

Political and business implications aside, Gogolak’s contributions to the game on the field are no less important. He was clearly a different breed. During practices he was segregated from the rest of the squad, and used a soccer ball as well as a football during warm ups. As a pure specialist with no other positional responsibilities, he admitted he often felt like an outsider. “It’s the way it’s always been for me,” he said. Head coach Allie Sherman was unconcerned. “He knows what it takes to get ready, that’s good enough for me,” said Sherman.

Part of his routine was refining the “touch” he felt was required by his craft, rather than lifting weights and running drills as other kickers in the past had done. Gogolak differed from contemporary kickers physically as well. He had a small frame that some perceived as frail. They thought he might be snapped in half if he ever attempted to make a tackle. Plus nobody understood how a little guy like that would be able to kick a ball as far as a larger man like Lou Groza, who had been an All-Pro tackle for the Browns early in his career.

Initially, scouts and coaches were skeptical of Gogolak and those who soon followed his path. Many doubted that these smaller men would be able to hold up over the course of a season or meet the demands of kicking off and making long-range field goals. In the traditional straight-ahead kicking style, with the toe of the kicking foot strikes the ball, the velocity behind the launch comes from the strength of the kicking leg, specifically the quadriceps muscle. This in part explains why larger men were successful at straight-ahead place kicking. It required minimal mobility in the direct approach to the ball, and it maximized their power potential.

The sidewinder approach (today known as soccer-style) offers two differences that over time became recognized as advantages: surface area and angular momentum. Gogolak explained his sidewinder style as being analogous to swinging a golf club. The sidewinder contacts the ball with the instep of his kicking foot. This gives him more ability to control the initial trajectory of the ball as it leaves his foot, a desirable effect when kicking through the wind. He also is afforded more margin for error in the event of a mis-strike or a last second adjustment if there is an errant snap or unstable hold. This explains the sidewinders’ superior accuracy.

The greater range might initially seem like a paradox, but it too is grounded in physics. The power originates from the torque created at the hip socket. This is where the golf club analogy applies. As the sidewinder approaches the ball from an angle, his first step toward the ball is with his kicking leg. His second step is a long stride with his plant leg. As the plant foot is set, the hip of the kicking leg is fully opened (externally rotated) with the knee deeply bent and the heel of the kicking foot pulled back. As he swings the foot toward the ball, the hip closes as the knee straightens, creating tremendous angular (or rotational) momentum from the full weight of the leg directed at the ball. This phenomenon is termed foot velocity.

With the increased surface area of the instep contacting the ball, the impact creates more force being directed into the ball. More directional control also creates more potential power. More muscle mass would ultimately detract from a sidewinder’s kicking ability. A minimal amount of strength is required; mobility and flexibility are maximized with this style.

Superior kicking ability did not often translate to more wins for the Giants during Gogolak’s tenure. Gogolak has more games played than any other Giants kicker, is the Giants all-time leading scorer and is first in the categories of point-afters and field goals made. Yet, he has only two game-winning kicks to his credit. The Giants teams of his era ranged mostly between mediocre and terrible.

Regardless of the team’s performance, Gogolak’s impact rippled through pro football quickly. After his first season in New York, his brother Charlie Gogolak was signed by Washington and Jan Stenerud by Kansas City. The sidewinder style of place kicking had taken root and in less than 10 years the straight-ahead style would be rendered near obsolete, with only a few aged veterans lasting into the 1980’s. All the kickers coming up from college used the new approach and were highly effective.

Gogolak was inducted into the Army in 1967, but was granted dispensation to have the weekends during the season off duty to play for the Giants. Once out of the Army in 1969, New York experimented with him as a dual specialist, as Chandler once had, as both the punter and place kicker. Gogolak’s kicking accuracy declined. After a Week 2 loss in Detroit where Gogolak missed two field goals, he was relieved of punting duties and New York spent the year rotating four different players at punter.

Tom Dempsey, a straight-ahead kicker for New Orleans, kicked a 63-yard field goal at Tulane Stadium on the game’s final play for a 19-17 win over Detroit on November 8, 1970. His record was considered unbreakable for many years. It was not tied until 1998 and was eventually eclipsed by one yard in 2013.

In 1970, Gogolak broke Summerall’s team record for field goals in a season when he connected on 25 attempts. He also recorded his first game-winning field goal when he broke a 24-24 tie at RFK Stadium with 1:52 to play for a 27-24 win over the Redskins on November 29.

Pete Gogolak, New York Giants (September 19, 1970)

Pete Gogolak, New York Giants (September 19, 1970)

During the 1972 season, his running streak of 133 consecutive point-after conversions came to an end. It was a franchise record and the fourth longest streak in pro football at the time. He also set a team record with eight point-afters in a 62-10 win over Philadelphia at Yankee Stadium on November 26.

Gogolak had another game winner that season in Yankee Stadium against the Cardinals, but his most pressure-packed kick came the next year in a game the Giants did not win. It was also the franchise’s last appearance in Yankee Stadium.

New York’s defense yielded a touchdown to the Eagles and trailed 23-20 with 1:52 to play on September 23. The Giants quickly advanced from their 15-yard line to Philadelphia’s 11-yard line on four pass completions, and used their final time out in the process. Two incompletions preceded a pass caught at the six-yard line with the clock running and the team scrambling. Center Greg Larson told The New York Times, “When I got to the line there were 14 seconds left but the Philadelphia players were taking forever to get back.” Gogolak saw four seconds on the clock “and got scared,” he said, as he set. The 14-yard kick salvaged a tie as time expired [there was no overtime in regular season play until 1974]. “It was a short kick, but it was a pressure kick. It’s the first time I’ve ever kicked a field goal on the last play of a game.”

Gogolak received the ultimate acknowledgement from the NFL prior to his final season in 1974 – they adopted new rules in attempt to minimize the soccer style of kicking he brought to pro football. The goal posts were returned to their pre-1933 location on the end line. Now that the hash marks were lined up with the uprights, field goals were becoming too commonplace and it was deemed necessary by the rules committee that the degree of difficulty needed to be increased. This was also true for kickoffs, which were moved back from the 40-yard line to the 35 to reduce the number of touchbacks.

After a 1974 season where his percentages dipped, Gogolak was released by the Giants during the 1975 training camp in favor of the younger, and cheaper, George Hunt. Gogolak said the rule changes did not directly affect his on-field performance, and that he had opportunities to play for other teams. But he said if the Giants cut him, he would simply retire and pursue the next phase of his career, rather than continue football.

The straight-ahead style of place kicking officially came to a close when Mark Mosely retired from the Browns after the 1986 season. The last straight-ahead kicks in the NFL occurred on September 13, 1987 at RFK Stadium. The Redskins starting kicker Jess Atkinson was injured during a first quarter point-after attempt. He was relieved by punter Steve Cox, who sometimes substituted on kickoffs and long range field goals. Kicking straight ahead, Cox was three-for-three on point afters in the game and also added a 40-yard field goal.

Every field goal and point-after in the NFL has been made with the sidewinder approach ever since, including Dough Flutie’s drop kick point-after made on January 1, 2006. Flutie used a never before seen hybrid technique on the attempt. After receiving the snap, he used the traditional three-step approach to the point of the kick, but did so diagonally and booted the ball over the crossbar with his instep. It was the perfect blend of Thorpe and Gogolak. The kicking game, for one poignant moment in time, had come full circle.

Sep 222014
 
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New York Giants at Washington Redskins (September 22, 1940); Tuffy Leemans with the ball.

New York Giants at Washington Redskins (September 22, 1940); Tuffy Leemans with the ball.

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

Part of the early NFL’s success in distinguishing itself from the more popular college game was splitting the league into two divisions and having the first place finishers meet to decide the league championship. Fan interest spiked, newspaper coverage increased, statistical documentation improved and the league stabilized.

In their eight seasons prior to the divisional format, the New York Giants had two sets of rivals. The first was the teams they regularly competed with for first place, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. The second set was the various geographical rivals within the New York City area. Most were short lived incarnations: the New York Yankees (1926-1928), the Brooklyn Lions/Horsemen (1927), the Staten Island Stapletons (1929-32), and the Newark Tornadoes (1929-30). The longest-tenured and most-viable franchise was the Brooklyn Dodgers/Tigers (1930-44).

Most of those local teams were unsuccessful and not much of a threat to the Giants on the field, but they were more than a nuisance. They competed with the Giants for talent and occasionally were successful in outbidding the established franchise for players. They also were an unneeded distraction when home dates conflicted. It was hard enough getting fans to come to the Polo Grounds without having games coincide within the city limits.

At the outset of divisional play in 1933, the usual teams were at the top. The Giants won the Eastern Division title and the Bears won the Western. In fact, over the first 14 seasons of this format, there was very little variety in the NFL Championship game. The Western Division was represented by the Bears eight times, the Packers four times and the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Rams once each. The domination in the East was even more stringent; all 14 titles belonged to just two teams. The Giants represented the East eight times and the other six by their first true rival, the Boston/Washington Redskins.

The 1933-35 seasons saw the Giants dominate the Eastern Division with little competition. Although New York’s record against Boston was 5-1 in that span, the rivalry with the Redskins grew to be so spectacular in the late 1930’s through the mid 1940’s that it was compared to famed college clashes in the vein of Yale-Harvard and Army-Navy. The league schedule-makers wisely capitalized on this feud, and often scheduled the Giants and Redskins to meet in the final week of the regular season. The December Giants-Redskins games at the Polo Grounds regularly had larger crowds than their Championship Games against the Bears or Packers the following week. The Redskins final season in Boston was the launch point, and it featured what would become almost an annual rite of passage to the Championship match – a winner-take-all, head-to-head season finale.

The New Contender Emerges

In 1936, former Giant end Ray Flaherty, who served as Steve Owen’s assistant coach in 1935, was in his first season as head coach of Boston and he had his team playing sharply, physically and confidently. Joining Flaherty was rookie Wayne Millner, a strong two-way end who proved to be a clutch receiver. The Redskins arrived in New York with a 6-5 record while the Giants stood at 5-5-1, which included a 7-0 win at Boston in October. Only a victory would vault the Giants into first place.

Much of the hype leading up to the game included a subplot of who would lead the NFL in rushing. Giants’ rookie sensation Tuffy Leemans entered the final week with 806 yards. New York’s practices were shortened in the early part of the week, first due to the Polo Grounds field being frozen, later from torrential rains falling. One of the practice reports from midweek described the scene of the Giants sloughing through ankle-deep mud in the patch of field close to the center field bleachers, as the grounds crew had the field of play covered with a tarp. “The ball carriers slipped and passes found the water-soaked pigskin wobbling through the air.”

The weather was not much better on game day, and kept what was expected to be a near capacity crowd to 18,000. The New York Times described the contest as not “even being a football game, but rather a parody of one.” Ball carriers “skidded as far as they ran” in “the clammiest mud imaginable.” The downpour lasted through the first three quarters and floodlights were turned on in the second half to illuminate the mud caked players through the foggy haze that settled inside the dreary Polo Grounds. The pileups became dangerous as the field deteriorated. The hazardous conditions were blamed for Les Corzine’s broken ankle and Tony Sarausky’s concussion “that narrowly missed being a fracture of the skull.”

The Redskins put the Giants in a hole early and held the field-position advantage throughout. Future Hall of Fame tackle Glen “Turk” Edwards partially blocked Ed Danowksi’s punt from the Giants end zone, setting up Boston on the New York four-yard line. Three plays later Don Irwin plunged over from one-yard out to put the Redskins ahead 7-0.

Boston Redskins at New York Giants (December 6, 1936)

Boston Redskins at New York Giants (December 6, 1936)

New York’s offense never found any tread. Passing the ball was a near impossibility, and Boston played a virtual 10-man line to clog the line of scrimmage and stuff the New York rushing attack in the “veritable quagmire.” Boston threatened twice more in the first half, but failed to capitalize as their scoring chances failed with a missed a field goal and lost fumble. Battles’ 74-yard sloshing punt return in the third quarter sealed the Giants fate.

Ironically, despite the Giants 14-0 loss, the Polo Grounds would still host the NFL Championship Game the following Sunday. Redskins Owner George Preston Marshall was dissatisfied with the small crowds at Fenway Park and decided his team would not return to Boston. Green Bay defeated the Redskins 21-6 in a defensive slugfest. After the game, Marshall told his team (which had three All-Pros in Battles, Edwards and center Frank Bausch) they were good enough to win a championship, all they needed was a quality passer.

That passer was taken with the Redskins first pick of the draft: tailback Sammy Baugh, whom Marshall personally scouted. Baugh was more than a ground breaking passer, he was an all-round player who also was a hard tackling safety on defense and exceptional punter. Meanwhile, Owen and the Giants believed they were more than one player away from going back to the Championship Game, and populated their roster with a significant number of rookies, including backs Ward Cuff and Hank Soar, ends Will Walls, Jim Poole and Jim Lee Howell, and guard Orville Tuttle.

In 1937, the new-look teams met under the flood lights for a night contest in front of 25,000 Washingtonians. They marveled at Baugh’s aerials, which twice drove the home team to field goals. The real ace for the Redskins though was back Riley Smith, who not only accounted for all of Washington’s points in the 13-3 victory, but who also made the game-altering play on defense. New York trailed 6-3 in the fourth quarter and was advancing on Washington’s rugged defense. Twice earlier, New York had been stopped on downs in goal-to-go situations. Riley intercepted Danowski’s pass and returned it 58 yards for the clinching score.

Despite the loss, Owen had to be encouraged with his young team’s performance on a big stage against one of the best outfits in the league. New York actually had the statistical advantage in most categories, including a lop-sided rushing-yards advantage of 226-105. The teams were almost even in the forward passing department. Baugh was 11-17 for 116 yards and Danowski 9-17 for 85 yards, but Danowski threw two interceptions, the second of which being the most costly.

Busy at the Blackboard

New York won their next four games and entered the season finale with a 6-2-2 record. Part of their success was a new two-platoon system where Owen had his team divided into interchangeable sub units. Beginning with the home opener in October versus Philadelphia, Owen swapped out 10 players at the end of the first and third quarters – the lone exception being Mel Hein who usually played the full 60 minutes. Not only did this keep his team fresh, it gave all the young players plenty of game experience.

A friendly rivalry known as “the soda pop derby” developed between the two squads (known as Team A and Team B) and they charted their net score throughout the season. The team with the highest net point differential would be treated to a round of sodas (or perhaps a more adult beverage) by the other.

The 7-3 Redskins won five of six following a 2-2 start. Rookie Baugh hit his stride in mid-October and led the league in forward completions and passing yards. He was most comfortable operating from the Double Wing formation. This formation featured the Single Wing’s unbalanced line, but had the quarterback or blocking back moved just outside the end, potentially giving the tailback four receiving options on every snap. Since the backfield was more balanced in this setup, the defense had a more difficult time anticipating where the ball would go after the snap. Flaherty also devised a new strategy where a back moved laterally to receive a pass behind a group of pulling linemen, which would later become known as a screen pass. Washington also featured the league’s #1 defense and leading rusher, Battles, who became the first player to lead the league in rushing twice (having first done so in 1932.)

T-Formation and Single WingThe Giants-Washington game at the Polo Grounds again fell on the final Sunday of the regular-season schedule and would determine which team played the Western Division Champion for the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy. The anticipation was high and ticket demand heavy – the Giants had hopes for a sellout. Marshall did his part to drum up interest in his own pompous way. He brought a caravan of approximately 10,000 football crazy fanatics from the DC region north on the Amtrak to Manhattan, including the Redskins 75-piece matching band, who paraded from Penn Station to the Giants offices at Columbus Circle. New York had never seen anything like it.

The Redskins boasted of being at both psychological and physical peaks for the December showdown, not a man on their roster missed practice. The press highlighted the fact that Flaherty held a 2-1 advantage against his mentor Owen.  The Giants had several key personnel nursing injuries, including Leemans, but had a statistical advantage in the standings. New York would be awarded first place in the event of a tie. Owen was also ready to fully deploy a scheme he’d been experimenting with throughout the season – a twist on the Single Wing that he called the A-Formation.

The A-Formation had three aspects that made it unique:

  • First, the line was unbalanced to one side and the backfield strong to the opposite side. The Single Wing was a power formation that attacked the edges of the defense with slant runs. The line and backfield were always strong to the same side, having the intent of delivering the most men to the point-of-attack as possible. The A-Formation’s asymmetry offered more opportunity for deception.
  • Second, the line splits were very unusual. The ends were moved a few yards further way from the tackles (a tactic Owen no doubt observed in November when the Giants hosted Green Bay, as Earl “Curly” Lambeau moved end Don Hutson further away from the collisions at the line of scrimmage to take advantage of his speed and route running ability) and spread the defense laterally. The over and under guards were close to Hein at center, but the right tackle took a wider split, almost as an end would. This created natural running and passing lanes and caused confusion in the defense’s pre-snap alignment.
  • Third, Hein was the multi-talented catalyst for the execution. His unique combination of range and strength allowed the line to deploy in this unorthodox manner. No other center possessed the capability of snapping the ball (Hein was the only center at the time to snap with his head up looking at the defense), getting out of his stance and engaging a defender effectively.  Every man in the backfield was eligible to take the snap. In Single Wing and Double Wing schemes, the snap almost always went to the tailback. In the A-Formation, Hein would snap the ball to the tailback, halfback or fullback on any given play. Not only did the defense have little idea where the play would be going, they did not know from where it would originate.  Being a highly-regarded defensive strategist throughout his career, Owen’s offensive system was derived from the places that gave defenses the most trouble, uncertainty and hesitation.

Double Wing and A-FormationNew York would also prepare with a new defensive alignment to deal with Baugh’s aerial assault: a 5-3-2-1 defense instead of their usual 6-4-1. The Giants practices were lively and the team brimmed with confidence. They had extra time to prepare as their last game was against Brooklyn on Thanksgiving Day (a disappointing 13-13 tie, a win would have clinched the East.) A case of beer was present at the Sunday practice as players were ready to celebrate the anticipated Green Bay victory over Washington. When word spread that the Redskins upset the Packers 14-6, guard Johnny Dell Isola told Owen, “Don’t let that bother you Steve. We’ll get that championship for you next Sunday anyway.”

Despite all the preparation, conceptualization and scheming, football games are decided on the field of play.  The second largest crowd in pro football history to that point, 58,285, witnessed a masterful performance by the visitors. The New York Times described the scene eloquently: “There is not a superlative in the English langue that can quite describe the magnificence of the Washingtonians. Their charging had the New Yorkers rocked back on their heels, their passing had them absolutely bewildered and the running was a gem of football perfection.”

Despite all Owens best intentions, the Redskins were clearly the better team, and dominated the game 49-14.  Although the Giants passers actually accrued more yards than Baugh, they were far less efficient. Baugh was 12-of-17 for 212 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception while the Giants combined for 18-of-33 for 154 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The real story of the domination was told in the trenches. Edwards and his crew were powerful along both fronts. Washington outrushed New York 238-18, including -5 for the Giants in the second half. Battles had 165 yards rushing and also a 75-yard interception return.

The Redskins caravan traveled to Chicago, where they upset the favored Bears at frozen Wrigley Field in 15 degree temperatures, 28-21, to win the NFL Championship.

The Giants exacted revenge on their new favorite team to hate in 1938. New York upset the Redskins in Washington 10-7 in a fourth-quarter comeback in October, then throttled them 36-0 in the season finale at the Polo Grounds. The Giants defeated Green Bay 23-17 for the NFL Title the following week.

 

Washington Redskins at New York Giants (December 4, 1938); Mel Hein (#7)

Washington Redskins at New York Giants (December 4, 1938); Mel Hein (#7)

(See “The 1938 New York Giants” for more detail.) 

In 1939, the meeting of the NFL’s previous two champions took place at Griffith Stadium in the first week of October. Both teams were 1-0, with wins over Philadelphia (Washington entered the game on a week’s rest) and New York was riding a 10-game unbeaten streak that had begun with the fourth quarter come-from-behind victory over the Redskins the previous year. This game would be played without one of the heroes of that win, end Jim Lee Howell was sidelined with an injury, as well as Leemans, Soar and guard Tarzan White.

The anticipated capacity crowd was held to 26,341 by driving rains that turned the field “into a miniature lake,” but they were treated to a primal battle featuring “bone shattering line play” as described in The New York Times. The Giants defense kept New York’s unbeaten string to eleven games with opportunistic play, as Washington controlled the field position and the ball throughout. The Redskins had the advantage in first downs 12-7 and total yards 208-74 (the Giants had -3 yards passing.) Three interceptions, a fumble recovery and a goal-line stand resulting in a missed 15-yard field goal by Washington enabled the Giants to survive with a 0-0 tie.

Ascending Tension

New York continued clutch play throughout the season. They did not usually dominate, but big plays at key moments earned them the moniker of “money team.” At 8-1-1 entering the season finale, the Giants only blemish was an 18-14 loss at Detroit in November. Washington was equally impressive and also 8-1-1. Their only loss was a 24-14 setback to the Packers, who had already clinched the Western Division. Both teams were confident, and the demand for tickets was so strong 4,000 bleacher seats were installed at the Polo Grounds. The Redskins were expected to arrive with approximately 15,000 in tow.

An interesting development from Washington this season was the addition of tailback Frank Filchock to their roster. While Filchock favored running, he was very capable throwing the ball and at times performed as a near equal with Baugh. “We made the defenses change,” Flaherty explains. “They’d get all set for Baugh’s passing and then would have to change when we put the running unit in. We tried to keep them constantly off balance and usually succeeded.” Filchock not only led the NFL in scoring strikes in 1939 with 11, he also earned the distinction of throwing the first 99-yard touchdown in NFL history (to Andy Farkas at Pittsburgh.) Balancing out the throwing tandem of Slingin’ Sammy and Flingin’ Frank, as they were known as in Washington, was fullback Farkas leading the league in scoring with 68 points (five rushing touchdowns, five receiving touchdowns, a kickoff return touchdown and two point afters.)

The Giants clutch defense would be put to the test. New York led the league in key categories of fewest points surrendered and most takeaways, and was second in yards yielded. Most of the Giants were in good health, save for Leemans who continued to nurse nagging injuries that he tried to keep discreet, “I’m not going to let them know where I’m banged up. They’ll have to find that out themselves.”

Refusing to take a cue from his boastful owner Marshall, Washington coach Flaherty only predicted “a good, close game.” Owen was equally guarded, “We’ve got a tough ballgame ahead of us. The boys are ready for it and I know they’ll do their best. That is all.” In the event of a tie, a playoff would be held the following Sunday in Washington.

The weather was not ideal. A chilly rain fell and the field was somewhat muddy, but would hold up well.  The crowd of 62,530 jammed into the Polo Grounds was the second largest in NFL history to that point (the largest was the Red Grange at the Polo Grounds in 1925 that exceeded 70,000) and they were treated to an intense, thrilling contest that ended with a legendary controversy.

The Giants dominated the first 30 minutes. Their physical play limited Washington to four rushing yards and sent several key Redskins to the sidelines with injuries, including Baugh, Farkas and Edwards.  Despite their dominance, the lead was just six, coming on Cuff and Strong field goal placements. Washington’s lone drive into New York territory ended with a Leemans’ interception of a Filchock pass in the end zone just before the half.

While the Redskins offense remained in capable hands with Filchock, Baugh was missed in the punting game. A poor third quarter punt set the Giants up with a short field at the Washington 40-yard line. After Danowski completed a pass Soar, two rushes placed the ball on the 16-yard line. The drive stalled and New York came up empty when Cuff’s 21-yard field goal attempt missed. The Giants came right back. Soar intercepted Filchock and returned the ball 25 yards to the Redskin 19-yard line. Washington’s defense was stout again, but this time Cuff’s 15-yard placement was good. New York led 9-0 going into the fourth quarter.

Filchock led Washington on their first advance of the second half, but New York put the threat to a close when Leemans, on his bad leg, intercepted his second pass of the afternoon.  Washington held and forced a New York punt. The Giants intercepted another Filchock pass, but it was the Redskins who were about to alter the tenor of the contest. They held New York again. Then Willie Wilkin blocked Len Barnum’s punt, giving Washington possession on the Giants’ 19-yard line with hope and a jolt of momentum.

After a run lost a yard, Filchock went back to the aerial attack. Fading to his right as he dropped back, Filchock launched a high arcing long ball to the left, which was timed perfectly to miss being deflected by the diving Barnum into the hands of Masterson just across the goal line. Masterson added the point-after and Washington was very much alive, trailing 9-7 with 5:34 on the clock.

Detonation

The rejuvenated Washington defense held the Giants to another three-and-out. Dick Todd returned the punt 30 yards to the New York 47-yard line. Filchock and Todd each advanced the ball once while their line creased New York’s forward wall. On first and ten from the Giants 19-yard line, Filchock completed a pass to Frank Spirida inside the eight-yard line. Filchock ran a keeper to the five and Washington called time out with 45 seconds left. Flaherty was penalized for calling consecutive time outs as he sent Bo Russell out for the placement attempt and the ball was moved back to the 10-yard line. Those five yards would prove to be critical.

There were no hash marks visible on the field to judge where the ball was spotted, but the spot was right-of-center, and Russell’s straight-ahead kick from short range went up in a straight line and appeared to pass almost directly over the right upright. It is impossible to tell with any degree of certainty whether or not it was inside, as the goalposts were much shorter in this era. The ball cleared the field of play and landed in the Polo Grounds grandstand. It appeared to have traveled a diagonal line of trajectory, but the possibility remains that it may have been just good enough.

The fans in the end zone seats celebrated as the ball landed among them while some of the Washington players also celebrated on the field. The mood changed dramatically as referee Bill Halloran walked into the middle of the players, waving his arms indicating the kick was no good. Several Redskins players stomped behind Halloran who conferred with umpire Tom Thorp.  Players and coaches from the Washington sideline swarmed around the officials.

Order was restored long enough for Danowski to twice hand off to John “Bull” Karcis, who was assaulted by enraged defenders each time he went into the line, and run the remaining time off of the clock. When the final gun sounded, seemingly every man from the Redskins sideline went right for Halloran while Giants fans stormed the north end zone and dismantled the goal posts. A mob of Washington players allegedly threatened Halloran and Thorp who were surrounded by police and Polo Grounds ushers, while the enraged Flaherty gesticulated that the kick was good. Wingback Ed Justice was alleged to have thrown several punches at Halloran (without any landing) and was dragged off of the field by several officers. The scene was riotous, brawls broke out amongst the horde of fans running rampant on the field, while the argumentative mob followed the officials into the tunnel toward the dressing rooms. It was a full half hour before the Polo Grounds was settled again.

Several spectators stated the kick was wide – by anywhere from two feet to a few inches – while in the locker room Washington players insisted it was good. In the post-game press conference, Flaherty seethed, “If that Halloran has a conscience, he’ll never have a sound night’s sleep again.” The kicker Russell himself said, “It was close; it could’ve been called either way.” Most surprising was the refusal to comment from owner Marshall.

The day after the game, NFL President Carl Storck revealed that if an investigation revealed Justice had thrown a punch he would be banned from the league for life, “If Justice was guilty of attacking an official, as has been alleged, he is deserving of the most serious penalty we can impose. Our officials must be protected.” Justice was ultimately exonerated and played with Washington through the 1942 season. Regarding the field goal decision, Storck said, “The decision on a play of that type must rest entirely on the referee’s judgment, and I have every confidence in Bill Halloran’s judgment. He is highly competent.”

At the press conference opening championship week, Owen said, “I was in no position to see whether it was good or not. No one on the sideline is in a position to see. Bill Halloran never hesitated in giving his decision.” The Giants went on to play the Packers in Milwaukee for the NFL title but were handled ruthlessly in a 27-0 rout.

The 1940 season saw the emergence of a new contender in the East. The young Brooklyn Dodgers with their star tailback Clarence “Ace” Parker found themselves on equal footing with the two dominant teams. New head coach Jock Sutherland had them operating an efficient, and at times explosive, offense and rugged defense. They were no longer a team to be taken for granted as an easy win.

Washington Redskins at New York Giants (November 24, 1940)

Washington Redskins at New York Giants (November 24, 1940)

While the Giants and Redskins split a pair of 21-7 home wins between one another, the Dodgers handed New York a 21-6 defeat at the Polo Grounds on December 1, burying the Giants in third place, their lowest finish in four years. It was their first loss to Brooklyn since 1930, ending a 17-0-3 unbeaten run versus their inter-borough rivals. Despite leading the NFL is scoring during the regular season (and forging the distinction of being the last Wing-style team to do so) Washington found out firsthand what the future of the professional football was going to look like when the Chicago Bears unleashed George Halas’ new version of the T-Formation. The final score of 73-0 remains the most one sided score in NFL history.

A Period of Perseverance

In 1941, the Giants swept Washington, including the second game where the Giants scored 10 points in the final 53 seconds for a come-from-behind win at the Polo Grounds to clinch the Eastern Division. The Dodgers, however, swept the Giants, including the game on December 7th when a chill went through the crowd as the PA called upon all active duty servicemen report immediately for duty. Nobody knew at the time that Japan had just attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor. Brooklyn’s victory also knocked the Redskins into third place. New York played an anti-climactic championship game in front of a small crowd at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Bears the next week. The Monsters of the Midway gave New York their own dose of the modern T-Formation and won the game 37-9.

By the time the 1942 training camps rolled around, the NFL landscape was very different. The most able bodied young men were called to duty in service of their country. Young men from college who were deemed undesirable for service mixed with aged veterans coaxed out of retirement, including Hein.

The Giants opened their season at 1-0 Washington in one of the most peculiar and unexpectedly significant outcomes in NFL history. The game conditions were miserable: blustery winds, heavy rain and a muddy field. The Giants won the coin toss and the normally conservative Owen elected to receive (he was the first coach to ever win the toss then elect to kick, being more comfortable with his defense to open a game). The first play from scrimmage was a 30-yard pass from Leemans to end Will Walls, who caught the ball at the 20, evaded a defender and sloshed his way into the end zone for a surprising 7-0 lead. Owen said later, “When the game opened, it seemed sure to rain, and I instructed Tuffy Leemans to try for a touchdown pass as soon as he got the ball.” That was New York’s only pass attempt of the game. The Giants were seemingly comfortable with the touchdown lead and content to run into the line a few times before punting and playing defense.

Baugh’s short passing game worked fairly well given the conditions. Several completions moved his team to the Giants 5-yard line where halfback Bob Seymour would go over for the score on his second plunge. Despite controlling the ball and amassing a huge advantage in yardage – Washington would end up outrushing New York 113-1 – the game remained deadlocked 7-7 late into the third quarter. Owen rolled the dice a second time and adjusted his defensive backfield during a Redskin advance. O’Neal Adams snared a Dick Poillon pass and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown to give the Giants a 14-7 advantage. It was a lead that would hold up, despite the Giants inability to register a single first down over the game’s 60 minutes. [Note: In modern scoring a touchdown is recorded as a first down.]A final Washington drive ended with another interception in New York territory in the fourth quarter.

The final statistics belied logic. Washington’s advantages of 15 first downs to 0 and 233 total yards to 51 left seemingly intelligent observers flummoxed. Members of the press corps credited the Giants with playing “smart football,” noting New York did win the turnover battle 3-0. Owen said of the game changing Adams interception, “That was not luck; we had gambled on stealing a favorite play of the Redskins, a wide flat pass, and had our ends play inside their ends.” New York’s strong punting game also served them well, as they forced Washington to drive long distances on the soft, muddy Griffith Stadium field. Marshall remained incredulous however: “One yard! Gadzooks, I could make more yardage than that just by falling down!”

Marshall was likely placated by the rest of Washington’s dominant season. This proved to be the Redskins lone loss of the campaign as they were hardly tested the remainder of the season. The roll to a 10-1 record included a 14-7 win at the Polo Grounds in November. The Giants meanwhile had a mediocre 5-5-1 year, only good enough for third in the East. The Redskins hosted the most impressive Bears team of the period for the NFL Championship. Chicago led the NFL in total offense and defense while boasting an average margin of victory that was nearly 27 points (one of those wins was a 26-7 decision over the Giants at the Polo Grounds) despite having lost Halas to the Navy mid-season (Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnsos served as co-coaches for the final six games ).

Washington Redskins at New York Giants (November 15, 1942)

Washington Redskins at New York Giants (November 15, 1942)

Baugh, and the other Washington players who were embarrassed two years earlier, earned a semblance of revenge as they deprived the Bears of a perfect season in a 14-6 upset. The end result, given the Giants unlikely September victory, was that the NFL would have to wait another 30 years before it would see a perfect team, when Don Shula’s 1972 Dolphins emerged 17-0 after beating George Allen’s Redskins in Super Bowl VII.

Reinvigorated Competition

In 1943, the manpower drain from World War II forced the NFL to trim roster size, shorten the season schedule and loosen restrictions on in-game substitution to allow coaches game management flexibility. Cleveland lost its team for the season, as the league granted the Rams request to suspend operations for a year as they had lost too many players as well as their owner to the armed services. Washington lost its coach Flaherty to the Navy as well, and was now lead by Dutch Bergman.  The Redskins didn’t seem to notice the difference as the reigning NFL Champs picked up where they left off the year before. They extended their unbeaten streak to 17 games before losing to the Pitt-Phil amalgamation. The Giants meanwhile still hovered around 0.500. Back-to-back wins over two of the league’s weakest teams, Brooklyn and the Chicago Cardinals, boosted New York’s record to 4-3-1 and gave them a longshot opportunity to steal the Eastern Division title from Washington if they could sweep the final home-and-home series with the Redskins. The first game at the Polo Grounds was originally scheduled to be the season finale, but a conflict forced the game at Griffith Stadium to be tacked on at the end of the season.

New York entered the game in mostly good shape. Walls, who had been out since injuring his knee in a game against the Bears three weeks earlier, was tentatively scheduled to return, which was just in time as Adams broke his jaw in the Dodgers game. Second year man Frank Liebel would also be relied upon heavily. Owen was counting on a good performance from his battle tested veterans like Hein, Cuff, Leemans, Cope and Soar to lead the mostly inexperienced team against the tough Redskins. Very few of the young players had ever faced a passer the caliber of Baugh, who would end the season as the league leader in three categories: passing, punting and interceptions, to become the first “Triple Crown” winner. Baugh though, would miss the protection from his All-Pro guard Dick Farman, who had injured his knee a week earlier, and wingback Wilbur Moore.

The crowd of 51,308 was treated to another Giants-Redskins late-season thriller. Early on there did not seem to be much potential for drama. Washington controlled the ball for most of the first half but did not take the lead until 18 seconds before the intermission with a 26-yard Masterson field goal. New York’s sound defense kept Washington out of the end zone. Owen explained his strategy for Baugh, who completed 16 passes for only 154 yards, “The Giants had good luck with Baugh because, unlike other teams, we figured out it was a waste of manpower trying to rush him. He could throw too fast to be stopped. We didn’t try to stop him. Instead, we covered his receivers closely to hold all gains to short ones and to tackle those receivers so hard that they had to pay full price for every yard.”

Washington seemed to solve the Giants scheme on the first drive of the third quarter. Farkas carried the load, pounding the ball eight times for 63 yards before landing on pay dirt to give the Redskins a 10-0 advantage.  The Giants responded with a revived running game of their own, starting from their 28-yard line. Two Paschal rushes totaled 31 yards; a Cuff reverse advanced another 21 yards to the Washington 20-yard line. Paschal carried the ball four consecutive plays before going over for the score to bring the Giants back to 10-7.

Washington Redskins at New York Giants (December 5, 1943); Al Blozis (#32), Len Younce (#60), Frank Cope (#36)

Washington Redskins at New York Giants (December 5, 1943); Al Blozis (#32), Len Younce (#60), Frank Cope (#36)

The New York defense held and the Paschal-Cuff tandem went back to work while the buzz in the Polo Grounds grandstands grew to a roar. The Giants marched from their 34-yard line to the Redskins 21 on three rushes, with only a touchdown-saving tackle from Baugh on Paschal preventing New York from taking the lead. Ultimately Baugh’s defensive effort kept Washington ahead, as the drive stalled and Wilkin blocked Cuff’s 22-yard placement.

Both defenses tightened, the two teams repeatedly traded punts as the game became a struggle for field position. Tackle Al Blozis in particular was a force in New York’s clampdown on the Redskins futile advances while Masterson spearheaded the Washington resistance. Time became an ally for Washington, as even escaping with a tie would lock up the division. Just over five minutes remained when Paschal returned a punt 20 yards to the New York 44-yard line. Paschal plunged once for three yards to set up what Owen later described as the “perfect” play.

Paschal took the hand-off from Leemans after an end-around fake, charged through right tackle, paused, then outraced Baugh to the end zone. The play’s success was a result of both scheme and slick ball handling. Owen said, “Emery Nix was the left half, Dave Brown the wingback. Brown faked his end-run reverse so well he drew off the Redskins secondary. Meanwhile, Paschal roared through the quick opener hole over guard after their guard had been trapped. All Bill had to do was sprint – along the shortest distance to the touchdown, a straight line – to win the game.” Baugh explained his reaction from the safety position, “I expected a pass, particularly since Brown a fast runner and a fresh man, had just been put in there. I wasn’t fooled by the ball-handling, but was going over on pass defense assignment to pick up either the end or the wingback.”

New York was ahead for the first time 14-10 and every fan in the Polo Grounds was on their feet in a state of bedlam. Washington returned the kickoff to their 45-yard line, but the excellent starting field position went for naught as the Giants secondary defensed four Baugh aerials in a  row, allowing New York to take over on downs. “Baugh was seldom dangerous on the long ones because he lofted the ball so high,” said Owen.

Karcis and Leemans took turns on line plunges and moved the chains once for a first down before kneeling down to expire the game clock. Paschal had earned the reprieve, his work for the day established a franchise record with 188 rushing yards on 24 carries, most of which came in the second half. No doubt Owen wanted to preserve him for the next game. His two touchdowns gave him 10 on the season, good for a first place tie with Green Bay’s prodigious Hutson. More good news for the Giants arrived from out of town, the Packers defeated Pitt-Phil, allowing New York to ascend to second place.

Owen stated he was “delighted” with the Giants line as they limited Washington’s ground game to 69 yards on defense while opening holes in the Redskins front for 270 yards on offense.  However, the New York passing game was dreadful – seven attempts yielded a meager two completions for seven yards. The Giants won the league’s coin flip, enabling them to host the divisional playoff in the event they were able to upset Washington again. It would be the second playoff since divisional play began in 1933 and the first in the East (the Packers and Bears participated in the first playoff in 1941). Owen said he did not expect a let down from his team, “I think most of the boys realize next Sunday’s battle is merely the second half of one and the same ballgame. We’re leading at the end of the first half.”

While Masterson of the Redskins boasted his enthusiasm toward a championship rematch with the Bears, Chicago co-coach Anderson offered his observation, “I saw the Giants play Washington in New York Sunday. It was such a viciously fought game… officials told me afterward that it was one of the toughest games they worked all year.” The Giants appeared in relatively good health for the week of practice, while the Redskins training staff was busy tending to several key players, including Farkas, Wilkin and Masterson who nursed an assortment of injuries incurred the previous week. Farman and Moore would also miss their second consecutive games.

Griffith Stadium was filled to the brim with 35,504 rabid fans anticipating a blowout. They got one, but it was the Redskins who were on the receiving end. The New York Times stated “the once-haughty champions of the National Football League were bounced all over Griffith Stadium” and “were thoroughly outplayed in every department, including that of effective passing.” There was little mystery as the statistics told the complete story. After Washington took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter on a Baugh touchdown pass, the tide turned quickly. Frank Cope blocked a Baugh punt that was recovered by Steve Pritko for the tying touchdown. Emery Nix completed a 75-yard touchdown pass to Frank Liebel soon after for a 14-7 halftime lead. All told, New York intercepted five of Baugh’s 28 attempts over the course of the game, and they capitalized often in the 31-7 romp. Paschal churned out 92 yards rushing for the Giants as they dealt Washington their third consecutive loss, the first time they had endured such a streak since 1937.

First Playoff in the East

Practices at the Polo Grounds included lineup shuffling, as they hoped to extend the Redskins doldrums one more week in the playoff. Liebel was out for the playoff, having suffered a broken nose in the season finale. Guard Charley Avedisian had his arm in a sling after suffering a shoulder separation. Adams, who had missed the first two Washington games was being fit with a special face guard for his still healing broken jaw. The Redskins hoped to change their fortunes by altering their normal routine. They arrived two days earlier than normal for a road game, and sequestered themselves in Westchester County rather than Manhattan. Despite Farman and Moore being out of the lineup again, Bergman said his team was in overall better shape.

Commissioner Elmer Layden decreed the game required a victor. Should the score be tied after 60 minutes, there would be a 15-minute sudden death overtime period following a three-minute period of rest. If the game remained tied after the initial overtime, the process would repeat itself until a team scored.

The advance planning for such a contingency proved completely unnecessary. Much to the dismay of most of the 42,800 fans in attendance, the Redskins returned the previous week’s favor by whipping the Giants in front of their own fans, 28-0.

Owen believed that “as Baugh goes, so go the Redskins.” That proved to be true once again. In the first game, Baugh played well but not spectacularly. In the second game he was dreadful. In the playoff he was magnificent, completing 16-of-21 for 199 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on offense. He also intercepted one he returned 38 yards to set up a score, and added a 65-yard punt for good measure. His sharp passing forged three scoring drives that were capped off by short Farkas touchdown plunges.  Overall, the Washington defense held New York to eight first downs and 112 total yards. Leemans was 4-of-20 passing with three interceptions while the Giants three-headed rushing attack was held in check.

Despite the disappointment of the one-sided defeat, the Giants were lauded for coming from seemingly nowhere and extending their season while pushing the defending champions to the brink. The conjecture was they were spent by the chase and had little left, while Washington shook off their malaise and finally performed to their full capability. The Redskins won the Eastern Division for the third time in four years, but failed in their attempt to become the first team to win consecutive championship games, as the Bears – who were on a week’s rest – defeated them handily in Wrigley Field 41-21.

The 1944 season saw more change in the NFL. The Pitt-Phil combine ceased and the Card-Pitt was formed, the Rams resumed operations and the Brooklyn Dodgers were now known as the Tigers. More significantly though, was the catching on of the T-Formation. The Bears had led the league in scoring three consecutive seasons and convincingly won three of the last four championships running the system that was now spreading through the colleges. Washington was now on the bandwagon, although their chief operator was reluctant at first, “I hated the T when we went to it on 1944,”said Baugh years later, “but my body loved it. I probably could have lasted a year or two more as a single wing tailback, my body was so beat up, but the T gave me nine more seasons.”

Power T-Formation

The Giants and Redskins were involved in another back-to-back season-closing pressure cooker that set the fate for three teams in the East. New York won out and lost to Green Bay in the NFL Championship Game at the Polo Grounds 14-7. That game holds the distinction of being the last time two Wing-style teams squared off in a title game (the Giants base set was the A-Formation and the Packers the Notre Dame Box.)

(See “Missing Rings: The 1944 New York Football Giants” for more detail.)

Washington represented the East in the championship game for the sixth time in 10 seasons in 1945 with an 8-2 record as Baugh became comfortable operating from the T-Formation. They swept the Giants, who declined significantly to a 3-6-1 record. The Redskins lost the Championship Game at frozen Cleveland Municipal Stadium against the Rams where a safety proved the difference in a 15-14 game, forging a significant rule change. In the first quarter, the Redskins had the ball on their own five-yard line. Baugh dropped back to pass from his own end zone, but the attempt struck the goal post and the ball bounced dead in the end zone. The rules at the time declared this to be a safety and gave the Rams a 2-0 lead. The following off season the rule was changed so any pass striking the goal post was called incomplete.

Ignominious End

The Giants revamped their roster for 1946. Hein retired for good after a record 15 seasons, tied with Jack Blood who played with Green Bay and Pittsburgh from 1925-39. Tailback Arnie Herber also retired, so New York signed Filchock away from Washington to the very first multi-year contract in New York’s history – three years for $35,000. Filchock had made a smooth transition from the Double Wing to the T-Formation in 1944, Owen hoped he could do the same learning the nuances of the unique A-Formation.

Filchock did, and he led the Giants in both passing (1,262 yards with 12 touchdowns) and rushing (371 yards and two touchdowns). New York won the East with a 7-3-1 record while Washington slumped to 5-5-1. Washington won the October match-up at Griffith Stadium 24-14 and had a chance to force a playoff with the Giants with a win in the season finale at the Polo Grounds.

The most notable points from New York’s 31-0 whipping of their rivals was the crowd of 60,337, the Polo Grounds largest since the 1939 Redskins game; Ken Strong tying Ward Cuff as the Giants career leading scorer; and Filchock outplaying former teammate Baugh. Although Baugh accrued more yards through the air (240-142), Filchock was more efficient, threw two touchdown passes and was on the receiving end of one of Baugh’s three interceptions. The Giants won the Eastern Division for the eighth time in its 14 years.

Unfortunately for Filchock, his legacy is usually focused on an attempted fix of the Championship Game with the Bears. Fluctuation in the point spread triggered an investigation; undercover police observed Giants practices and wiretaps were installed on the business phone of a known gambler, Alvin J. Paris. No New York players were ever heard on the phone, but Paris mentioned Filchock and Merle Hapes by name to his associates.

Mara and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell were summoned to New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer’s office Saturday afternoon to meet with Police Commissioner Arthur Wallander. The two players were interrogated there at 2:00 AM. Filchock denied any involvement, while Hapes admitted to being offered $2,500, the profits of a $1,000 bet that Chicago would cover the 10-point spread and an offseason job that would earn him $15,000.

Both players were cleared by the police and Paris was arrested and held on $25,000 bail (he ultimately served one year in prison after testifying against other members of his syndicate). Bell publically stated the morning of the game that the NFL would continue with its own investigation into the offers. Hapes was barred from playing in the game for failure to report the bribe offer being made.

Fans heard of the late night intrigue over the radio that morning, and Filchock was robustly booed and hackled when he stepped on the Polo Grounds field. According to all reports he played valiantly in defeat, even if his statistics may not have born this out. His six interceptions were detrimental in the Giants 24-14 loss, rendering the 10-point spread a push. Angry Chicago players took umbrage in dealing extra punishment to Filchock whenever the opportunity allowed, but he played just over 50 minutes of the contest.

Flichock ultimately acknowledged he did receive a bribe offer from Paris. Both he and Hapes received lifetime bans from the NFL for being “guilty of actions detrimental to the welfare of the National Football League and of professional football.” Hapes retired from football altogether and Filchock, after being rejected by the AAFC, played seven more seasons in the CFL.

New York and Washington’s shared reign in the Eastern Division came to a close in 1947. Earl “Greasy” Neal’s Philadelphia team, whose version of the T-Formation was powered by the dynamic Steve Van Buren, won out the final three seasons of the decade, capturing the NFL title the last two. The Giants began an uneasy transition to the T-Formation in 1949, but never fully committed to it until Owen’s departure after the 1953 season as he routinely reverted to his A-Formation.

A new rivalry for the Giants was born in the new decade. The merger of the NFL and AAFC introduced New York to the Cleveland Browns, whose innovative coach Paul Brown explored the Halas T-Formation further and developed it into a pass-first scheme. The Eastern Division was renamed the American Conference for three seasons, then the Eastern Conference through 1966. Over the 17-season span from 1950 through 1966 Cleveland and New York dominated their half of the league, as the Giants and Redskins had previously. New York and Washington would renew their battles for division supremacy in the post AFL-NFL merger in the mid 1980’s.


Overall Regular-Season Record: Giants led series 13-8-1

Overall Playoff Series Record: Washington led series 1-0 (1943 Divisional Playoff)

1936

10/4       Giants 7               at            Boston 0

12/6       Giants 0                vs            Boston 14

1937

9/16       Giants 3                at            Washington 13

12/5       Giants 14             vs            Washington 49

1938

10/9       Giants 10             at            Washington 7

12/4       Giants 36             vs            Washington 0

1939

10/1       Giants 0                at            Washington 0

12/4       Giants 9               vs            Washington 7

1940

9/22       Giants 7                at            Washington 21

11/24     Giants 21             vs            Washington 7

1941

9/28       Giants 17             at            Washington 10

11/23     Giants 20             vs            Washington 13

1942

9/28       Giants 14             at            Washington 7

11/15     Giants 7                vs            Washington 14

1943

12/5         Giants 14             vs            Washington 10

12/12     Giants 31             at            Washington 7

*12/19  Giants 0                vs            Washington 28

1944

12/5       Giants 14             vs            Washington 10

12/12     Giants 31             at            Washington 7

1945

10/28     Giants 14             vs            Washington 24

12/12     Giants 0                at            Washington 17

1946

10/13     Giants 14             at            Washington 24

12/12     Giants 31             vs            Washington 0

Jul 062014
 
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1944 New York Giants

1944 New York Giants

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

The NFL was in a struggle for survival as the manpower shortage created by World War II put a strain on the league’s primary resource, healthy young men. The War Manpower Commission had first dibs on able-bodied young men and it did not take long for the depletion to evoke improvisational counter measures.

A player’s physical talent became a secondary characteristic; his availability to his team was paramount. Many of the players signed during this period of belt-tightening had been turned down by the armed services. Fullback Bill “Bazooka” Paschal was one such example. Scar tissue in his knee made him undesirable to the Army, but the New York Giants were happy to have him in for a tryout on the recommendation of Grantland Rice, who had seen him play at Georgia Tech. Paschal set New York’s single-game rushing record with 188 yards in his first season in 1943, and led the NFL in rushing yards in 1943 and ’44, the first man to do so in back-to-back seasons. He also led the NFL in rushing touchdowns both years.

Sometimes healthy specimens made their way to the gridiron, as in the case of tackle Al Blozis. The Army believed his 6’5” 250 pound body was too large to be of use for them. The Giants selected him in the fifth round of the 1942 Draft, and Blozis went to become a consensus All-Pro in 1943. While Blozis usually draws acclaim for his defensive prowess, much of the success Paschal experienced running the ball came from following Blozis’ powerful blocks. Blozis even scored a 15-yard touchdown on a tackle-eligible play that year. Ultimately, Blozis followed his higher calling. After multiple attempts, he finally persuaded the Army to waive their size restrictions for him and Blozis was commissioned in 1944. During a furlough late in the season, he returned to play for the Giants while awaiting deployment. Blozis was killed by German fire in France in January 1945 while searching for members of his squad.

By February 1943, 330 NFL players were in the armed forces. The Brooklyn Dodgers had just seven players return from their 1942 roster when they opened training camp. Among the contingencies enacted by the league to manage the manpower shortage were various forms of contraction. The Cleveland Rams suspended operations and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles merged into the Pitt-Phil Steagles in 1943. Attempting to stay in the good graces of the Office of Defense Transportation, the league lowered roster limits from 33 to 28 (though some teams would choose to carry less), and the schedule was shortened from 11 games to 10.

Bill Paschal, New York Giants (1944)

Bill Paschal, New York Giants (1944)

The Rams resumed operations in 1944, but the talent pool depletion worsened. Of the 330 prospects selected in the NFL Draft, only 12 appeared in a football uniform. The Eagles re-emerged as an independent team and the Steelers merged with the Chicago Cardinals. They were officially known as The Card-Pitt Combine, but the 0-10 team was so dreadful they became tagged as the “Carpets” by fans. The Steelers and Cardinals resumed independently in 1945, but the Brooklyn Tigers (formerly the Dodgers) and Boston Yanks merged into one franchise without a city designation. They played four of their five home games in Boston and the other versus the Giants at Yankee Stadium.

Instituting their own version of a recall, the NFL looked to some of its heroes from the 1930’s. Mel Hein had told the Giants he was retiring after the 1942 season, but Head Coach Steve Owen was amenable to Hein’s request to miss practices during the week, being designated a “Sunday Center.” Hein would spend the next three years working at a Naval training program at Union College in Schenectady, NY for five days, and then riding the Amtrak to New York to meet his team. Ken Strong, who had not played since 1939, returned as a kicking specialist. His terms were that he not be required to wear a helmet or shoulder pads.

Arnie Herber, the former passing great from Green Bay who battled the Giants for the NFL title in 1938 and ’39, was wooed out of a three-year retirement by Owen, who sought to stabilize a roster that was otherwise mainly filled with first- and second-year players (including three who did not play college football.) Only five players remained from the 1941 Eastern Division Championship team: Hein, wingback Ward Cuff, tackle Frank Cope, guard Len Younce and all-purpose back and defensive star Hank Soar. The veteran Soar was an Owen favorite who also had an arrangement where he worked at an Army camp in Pennsylvania during the week and arrived on game day. He would not finish the season, however, as his unit would be deployed overseas. Paschal had enlisted in the Maritime Service, but was granted a special dispensation for leave on game days.

Fighting for Every Inch

New York opened their 1944 regular season with an unremarkable win at Fenway Park against the Boston Yanks. The Giants offense was far from a well-oiled machine as the young, old and slightly-damaged parts had yet to fully integrate. Herber struggled as he was still playing himself into shape. He completed just one pass for 12 yards, was intercepted twice and fumbled once, the latter being returned for Boston’s only touchdown. The Giants defense was its formidable self and the special teams made clutch plays. The defense recorded a safety and Cope blocked a punt that was recovered for a touchdown by Victor Carroll. Strong made both his field goals in the 22-10 victory.

New York Giants at Brooklyn Tigers (October 15, 1944)

Frank Cope (36) and Len Younce (60), New York Giants at Brooklyn Tigers (October 15, 1944)

The Giants offense struggled even more the following week as they gained a paltry four first downs in front of 25,854 fans at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn against the re-christened Tigers. New York completed just six passes on the day, but two were for touchdowns from the arm of Soar. The second came in the fourth quarter and lifted the Giants to a 14-7 win.

New York Giants vs. Card Pitts (October 22, 1944)

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The Giants opened their home schedule the following Sunday before 40,734 faithful and treated the fans to a feel-good 23-0 win over The Card-Pitt Combine. The passing game improved and the running game was dominant. New York totaled 224 yards on the ground and Paschal rushed for three touchdowns. Cope blocked a punt through the end zone for a safety while the Giants defense recovered five fumbles. If the game felt somewhat like a scrimmage, it was because Card-Pitt was a recent convert to the T-Formation that was gradually gaining favor over the Single and Double Wing throughout the league. While Card-Pitt lacked the talent to run the T-Formation effectively, the next opponent on the schedule did.

The Next Wave

The 1940 NFL Championship Game was a seminal moment. George Halas’ Chicago Bears obliterated the Washington Redskins 73-0 with his new version of the T-Formation with wider line splits and a man-in-motion. Just a few days later, the NCAA’s only T-Formation team, the Stanford Cardinal, headed by Halas associate Clark Shaughnessy, defeated Nebraska in the Rose Bowl 21-13. The Bears led the NFL in scoring from 1941-1943 after winning the 1940 title and coaches everywhere took notice as Halas proved the T-Formation was no fluke. Chicago repeated as champions in 1941 when they defeated the Giants 31-9 in the title game, had an undefeated regular season in 1942, and made it three titles in four years in 1943 when they defeated Washington 41-21 in the NFL Championship Game.

The first NFL team to jump on the T-Formation bandwagon was the Philadelphia Eagles in 1941. The results were not immediate for Earl “Greasy” Neal’s team, as colleges were slow to convert from the Single and Double Wings. But Neal was a believer in the new system and committed to it. The Eagles saw incremental improvement each season.

The 1944 NFL Draft was a major coup for Philadelphia. The talented and relentless halfback Steve Van Buren from LSU vaulted Neal’s offensive attack straight to the top. The T-formation was still primarily a running offense, with two halfbacks and a fullback lined up behind the quarterback under center. Its success came from the balanced offensive line and the added deception provided by a skilled ball-handling quarterback. The Eagles would finish the season first in rushing yards and total points scored. Van Buren was fast, powerful and a team leader. He contributed 444 rushing yards and led the NFL in punt return yards his rookie season.

Owen spent extra time preparing for the Eagles and their T-formation at practices that week. A major challenge for Owen was overcoming the unexpected absence of his best defensive halfback and leader, Hank Soar, who wired Owen the night before the game that his unit was being deployed overseas. The 42,639 fans at the Polo Grounds watched Owen’s preparation pay off beautifully for the game’s first 25 minutes. After the Giants defense spotted Philadelphia a field goal, they stifled the Eagles’ attack. The Eagles fumbled the ensuing punt and Frank Liebel returned the loose ball for a 20-yard touchdown. This ignited a 17-point run for the Giants, who seemed to be getting by without defensive leader Soar. Paschal added a 68-yard touchdown himself and the Giants had a 17-3 lead with about five minutes left before halftime.

However, Philadelphia quarterback Roy Zimmerman found a rhythm and engineered a drive that culminated with a 6-yard Van Buren rushing touchdown to trim the lead to 17-10 at the intermission. Throughout the second half, the Giants offense sputtered in fits and starts while the Eagles T-Formation engine purred, accumulated yards and moved the chains.

Typical of many latter-day Giants-Eagles contests, Philadelphia found an uncommon way to score. Midway through the third quarter, the Eagles had the ball on the New York 22-yard line. Zimmerman connected with end Tom Miller on a 7-yard pass. As Miller was being tackled, he lateraled to the trailing Zimmerman who ran for pay dirt from the 15-yard line. Zimmerman then kicked the point-after to tie the game at 17-17.

The Giants hung on through much of the fourth quarter, and seemed likely to escape with a tie after Zimmerman missed a 48-yard placement attempt. However, Van Buren intercepted a Howie Livingston pass at midfield and returned it to the New York 36-yard line. A handful of Van Buren rushes set up Zimmerman’s 1-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown. The Giants did not quit, but they had more fight in them than luck. After New York’s desperate advance moved them into Philadelphia territory, the game came to a close with two Herber passes into the end zone. The first seemed like a sure touchdown to Liebel until it was defensed by Ernie Steele at the very last instant. The second was intercepted by Steele off of a tip by receiver O’Neal Adams as the clock expired. The 24-17 loss dropped the previously unbeaten Giants into third place at 3-1 behind Philadelphia and Washington.

Len Calligaro (2), New York Giants (November 5, 1944)

Len Calligaro (2), Boston Yanks at New York Giants (November 5, 1944)

The Giants released their frustrations on the Boston Yanks the following week. The 28,634 fans at the Polo Grounds cheered on as Paschal led the way with 113 rushing yards in the 31-0 win. Owen and his team couldn’t afford to get complacent though; the next game scheduled was a trip to first-place Philadelphia.

Crunch Time

Shibe Park was a raucous, packed stadium with a record 33,248 enthusiastic fans, who reveled in the home team’s performance. Van Buren’s 97-yard first-quarter kickoff return touchdown triggered a 21-point run. The Eagles led the Giants 21-7 after three quarters. The comeback role was reversed in this re-match and Herber finally found the rhythm the Giants passing attack had lacked all season. The stunning rally began with just under 6:00 on the clock, and it occurred with the Giants best offensive threat, Bill Paschal, on the bench with a leg injury. The first score was a 22-yard Herber strike to Livingston, who caught the ball in the middle of the end zone while surrounded by three Philadelphia defenders. Strong’s placement trimmed the lead to 21-14. The New York defense held and Herber went back to work. Another long-ball from the Giants 42-yard line was caught at the Eagles 24-yard line by Liebel, who outraced Steele – the hero from two-weeks earlier – to pay dirt. Strong’s placement was successful and deadlocked the score at 21-21.

New York’s defense again held and the Giants got the ball back quickly. Herber advanced the Giants deep into Philadelphia territory with just seconds left. Strong was good on his field goal from the 43-yard line, but the field goal was waived off on a late flag for delay of game. The next attempt from 48 yards was blocked as time expired. Owen exploded. His first argument was that on the play before Strong’s initial attempt, it appeared that Herber had completed a pass to the 20-yard line after a catch-and-run. However, an official had ruled that the receiver had stepped out on the 35-yard line. Secondly, while Owen argued, the clock mistakenly continued to run. The Giants were forced to attempt the field goal without a huddle. Owen’s third grievance was that Philadelphia had put a soft ball in play before the second try that was blocked.

Although the Giants did not get the win to move up in the standings, Owen at least had to be somewhat satisfied the Giants had avoided a seemingly imminent loss that would have crippled their championship chances. Plus, the passing game which had struggled most of the season finally showed signs of life. Herber was magnificent in the clutch as he completed 5-of-6 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. This was welcome news as the stretch run promised to be a grind.

A season-high crowd of 56,481 jammed the Polo Grounds to watch the 4-1-1 Giants entertain the 7-1-0 Western Division-leading Packers. Most were surprised by the efficiency displayed by the Giants defense as they confounded Green Bay’s prolific offense in a 24-0 shutout. The primary star of the game was Livingston, who Owen challenged by locking him up one-on-one with the NFL’s premier pass catcher, Don Hutson. In past encounters, Owen employed zone configurations to contain the Packer passing attack. But on this occasion he followed a hunch to play man coverage. This handsomely paid off as Hutson was limited to four catches for 31 yards. Livingston also had the first of the Giants five interceptions on the day. The other star for New York was Younce, who plowed open holes for the Giants 221-yard rushing attack. Cuff led the way with 103. Younce also had an interception on defense.

Good news arrived on the out-of-town scoreboard as well; the 5-1-1 Giants moved up to second place as Washington fell to Philadelphia. New York maintained their position in the standings the following Sunday in a tough 7-0 win over Brooklyn at the Polo Grounds. Most of the 28,387 fans would probably agree that the 0-9 Tigers were a feisty unit with a tough defense. After scoring a first-quarter touchdown, the Giants fought for every inch of turf. Strong missed two field goal attempts in the second quarter and the Giants defense twice halted Brooklyn drives inside the 10-yard line. The unsung hero was the newly-commissioned Lt. Blozis, who arrived at practice the Friday before the game. The New York Times said, “It’s doubtful the Giants would have won without him.”

Al Blozis, New York Giants (December 3, 1944)

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

A leaner Blozis, whose weight of 242 was eight pounds lighter than the previous season, was just the boost Owen felt his team needed with back-to-back games against 6-1-1 Washington to close the regular season. Spirits were high in practice as the Giants had moved into a first-place tie with Philadelphia when the Eagles lost to the Bears. Owen acknowledged the Giants had no miracle fixes in store for their inconsistent offense. They spent the week at practice stressing fundamentals and fine tuning their rugged defense that had already shut out four opponents.

The sensational Sammy Baugh split passing duties during 1944 as the Redskins made a mid-year switch from the Double Wing to T-Formation. Statistically, Baugh appeared to be off his game, but as always, he had the Redskins in contention by season’s end. He was backed up ably by Frank Filchock. Not only did the duo combine for the most passing yards in the league, they were most efficient in doing so. Washington’s 56.9 team completion percentage was well ahead of the second-place Bears (49.3). The Giants 37.6 completion percentage placed them in eighth place in the 10-team league.

It was almost always a forgone conclusion that the Giants-Redskins games would decide the Eastern Division title. Since divisional play began in 1933, New York won the Eastern Division six times and Washington five times. The 1943 regular season culminated in the rivals engaging in a playoff. The Giants had chased the Redskins all season and eventually caught them at 6-3-1 after winning the two head-to-head games in the final weeks. The chase apparently drained New York however, as Washington trounced the Giants 28-0 in the Polo Grounds.

The Polo Grounds crowd of 47,457 braved intense cold, ready for revenge. Baugh went most of the way for Washington and had the visitors ahead 13-10 with 5:00 left in the fourth quarter. But Livingston intercepted Baugh and returned the ball to the Washington 35-yard line. Herber once again was strong in the clutch. He completed two passes before Cuff’s 21-yard reverse set up Paschal’s 2-yard touchdown plunge with approximately 3:30 left. However, the Giants did not make the critical point-after. Baugh, who finished 25-of-35 for 273 yards on the day, fearlessly led the Redskins down the field. Joe Aguirre kicked a 36-yard field goal to tie the game, but that kick was nullified by a holding penalty. The subsequent 52-yard attempt (holding was a 15-yard penalty at the time) fell well short. The Giants won 16-13.

Philadelphia defeated Brooklyn and moved up to second place at 6-1-2, while Washington dropped to third at 6-2-1. Nevertheless, the Eastern Division title was still up for grabs. If 7-1-1 New York won the finale at Washington, the Giants would win the Eastern Division title. If Washington won, they would be tied with the Giants at 7-2-1, making the Philadelphia-Cleveland game critical. If the Eagles won, they would take the Eastern crown. If Philadelphia lost, for the second consecutive year, a playoff between New York and Washington would decide who advanced to the NFL Championship Game. In the event of a Philadelphia victory and a tie between Washington and New York, the Giants would play the Eagles in a playoff. Unfortunately, New York would be without Blozis, who was called away for military duty.

The capacity crowd of 35,540 at Griffith Stadium was silenced early. Baugh fumbled on the first two possessions and the Giants capitalized both times. The first was a 25-yard Herber-to-Cuff touchdown connection less than four minutes into the contest. Then Herber connected with Liebel from 11 yards out for a second touchdown. Owen’s defense quashed any hopes of Baugh leading his Redskins in a comeback. Filchock relieved Baugh in a desperate attempt to spark a reversal of momentum, but the results were the same. In all, New York intercepted six passes on the day, en route to their fifth shutout of the season.

Limping to the Finish Line

Green Bay Packers at New York Giants, 1944 NFL Championship Ticket Stub

Green Bay Packers at New York Giants, 1944 NFL Championship Ticket Stub

The enthusiasm of the 31-0 victory was dampened after the game when the Giants learned that league-leading rusher Bill Paschal had severely sprained his ankle in the second quarter and his availability for the NFL Championship Game was in doubt. Worry increased during the week as Paschal tested the ankle several times during the practice but was unable to go full speed. Rookie Len Calligaro took Paschal’s reps in practice and Owen had the team focus on sharpening the passing game that had shown improvement over the latter course of the season. The good news for the Giants was Blozis was on a short leave and available to play. The Packers on the other hand were healthy and rested, not having played a game in three weeks.

An NFL Championship Game record 46,016 fans nearly filled the Polo Grounds on a crisp but not unpleasant afternoon. Commissioner Elmer Layden declared before the game that if the score was tied after 60 minutes, there would be no overtime period. Green Bay and New York would be declared co-champions.

Owen devised a new scheme to deal with Packer receiver extraordinaire Don Hutson, who had led the NFL in catches and yards for the fourth consecutive season, and who was tied with Paschal for the league-lead in touchdowns with nine. (Hutson’s were all receiving, Paschal’s all rushing.) The Giants deployed a five-man line. But when a pass play was read, Younce would drop back from his middle guard position and assist in covering Hutson.

This strategy worked through the scoreless first quarter while both teams repeatedly exchanged punts. The bad news for the Giants was Calligaro severely injured his shoulder making a tackle on the first play of the game and did not return. Meanwhile, Packers coach Curly Lambeau countered New York’s defensive strategy by sending halfback Ted Fritsch or fullback Joe Laws, who’d had just one carry all year, into Younce’s vacated position in the middle. Fritsch began a long drive with a 21 yard ramble from the Green Bay 25-yard line. Laws followed several plays later with a 15-yard rush to the Giants 27-yard line. On the next play, Fritsch crashed through right tackle to the 1-yard line. New York’s forward wall tightened up for a goal-line stand. Two rushes by Fritsch each lost a yard, and Laws advanced back to original line of scrimmage on third down. Lambeau went for it on fourth down. Fritsch took the ball, found a crease behind Charles “Buckets” Goldenberg and went over for the score. Hutson was good on the point-after and Green Bay led 7-0.

Green Bay Packers at New York Giants, 1944 NFL Championship Game Program (December 17, 1944)

1944 NFL Championship Game Program

The Giants offense struggled badly. With Calligaro out, Owen was forced to put the injured Paschal on the field as little more than a decoy. Making matters worse, the passing game was out of sync. New York punted every time they had the ball, netting a paltry 24 yards in the first half with no first downs.

Green Bay began their final possession of the second quarter on their own 38-yard line. On third-and-three, Hutson shook free from coverage and hauled in a 24-yard pass from tailback Irv Comp to the New York 30-yard line. On third-and-eight, the Giants obsessive focus on Hutson would prove costly.

As Comp received the snap, Hutson crossed the New York secondary from his left end position, drawing multiple defenders with him. Noticing this, Fritsch alertly released to the vacated left flat. Comp pump faked right to Hutson, and then lobbed the ball to Fritsch at the 11-yard line where he jogged into the end zone untouched with just over one minute on the clock. Hutson’s point-after was good and the Packers had a seemingly-comfortable 14-0 halftime lead.

Fight to the Finish

The Giants returned to the field in the third quarter with a new urgency. Paschal gave it one more try on the first possession before his ankle gave out and he returned to the bench for good. New York engineered two first downs despite his absence and advanced to midfield before punting. The defense held and the Giants moved from their own 14-yard line to the Green Bay 42 on four plays, including two completions by Herber and one by Cuff. But Laws halted the drive with an interception.

Livingston got the ball right back for the Giants with a pass theft of his own on the New York 45-yard line. Herber kept to the air as New York capitalized on the good field position. Following a pass interference penalty on the Green Bay 42-yard line, Herber launched a deep pass to Liebel, who was initially covered by Comp before the defender lost his footing. Liebel made the catch and was pushed out of bounds on the 1-yard line as the third quarter expired. Cuff finished the drive on the first play of the final quarter. Strong’s point-after was good. The Giants were within one score of at least a share of the NFL title at 14-7.

From this point both teams played the clock. The Packers kept the ball on the ground while Herber valiantly fought for the tying score with his arm. Both defenses held strong for most of the period. Herber led the Giants on one final drive into Packer territory but was intercepted inside the 20-yard line by Paul Duhart with less than five minutes to play. This essentially settled the outcome and preserved the title solely for Green Bay.

1944 NFL Championship Game, Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (December 17, 1944)

1944 NFL Championship Game, Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (December 17, 1944)

Herber and Cuff were valiant in defeat for the short-handed Giants, but both defenses ruled the day. The Packers and Giants combined for seven interceptions against 11 completions. Hutson was limited to just two catches for 47 yards. “Don’t let anyone tell you the Giants are not a good team,” the All-Pro receiver said after the game. “Defensively, they are the best in the league. They always hamper our offense when we play them.”

Blozis and Hein were cited for their powerful line play while Paul Berezney and Charley Brock received similar accolades for the champion Packers. Owen lamented key injuries but was complimentary to Green Bay: “We didn’t have it today. They did. We were bottled in our own territory throughout the first half and had to kick on third down repeatedly. Without Paschal to threaten them, the Packers were able to play wide open. We went as far as we could.”

Looking back on the season as a whole, the 1944 New York Giants performance was historically great for the defense. Over the 10-game regular season, New York surrendered only 75 points. The 7.5 points-per-game average was well below the league average of 18.0. The next closest team from the start of the T-Formation era in 1940 was the unbeaten 1942 Chicago Bears who allowed 7.64 points per game (84 points over 11 games). The Giants defense surrendered only eight touchdowns during the regular season: five rushing and three passing. They were third in total yards surrendered, second in yards-per-play at 3.6 (Philadelphia was first with 3.5), first in rushing yards allowed, and first in take-aways with 45. Paschal and Younce were recognized with All-Pro status for their individual contributions.

The Giants legacy entering their 90th season of play in 2014 includes the most post-season appearances of any franchise with 31. When the NFL was aligned in its two division format from 1933 through 1966, New York won the Eastern Division/Conference 13 times, more than any other team. Their record in the NFL Championship Game was three wins against 10 losses. Those teams that fell just short of the title are woven into the fabric of New York history and are part of the standard to which today’s New York Giants teams are held.

Jun 292014
 
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1929 New York Giants

1929 New York Giants

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

The New York Football Giants have won eight world championships in their 90 seasons in the National Football League, and trail only the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers in that regard. The three franchises post-season histories are intertwined so deeply with one another that they share some of the same DNA. One cannot recount the history of one of these teams without including the others.

The Giants have tangled in the post-season eight times with the Bears and seven times with the Packers. In the 30 year span from the start of divisional play in 1933 until 1963, New York met these two ancient Western Division/Conference rivals 11 times in NFL Championship Games. Unfortunately for the Giants, they only won three of those games. They were twice victorious over Chicago (1934 and 1956) and once over Green Bay (1938). All three wins were in New York. The first two occurred in their original home, the Polo Grounds, and the third in venerable old Yankee Stadium. But the competitive roots of these three flagship franchises go even deeper.

Prior to divisional play, the NFL was stacked top-to-bottom in a heap of random, unbalanced, make-it-up-as-you-go scheduling that was sometimes interspersed with non-league exhibitions. It was such a mess at times that the league didn’t even calculate ties in win percentages. Disputes over final standings were commonplace and interested parties often resorted to politicking for several months after the season closed, lobbying for votes at the spring owners meeting where a ballot was cast to officially declare the previous season’s champion.

The Giants fate was often determined during November and December contests with Chicago and Green Bay. The Giants earned their first NFL title in 1927 after a pivotal December Polo Grounds slugfest against the Bears that was such an epic struggle it rendered the subsequent sweep of the hated New York Yankees anti-climactic.

Some of the Giants strongest teams, ones that set records and had the biggest stars of their day, fell just short of the ultimate goal. This is the story of one of those bitter disappointments. The 1929 New York Giants were remarkable in their own unique way and are worthy of remembrance and celebration of their accomplishments.

The Rising Star

There is little wonder why Giant co-owners Tim Mara and Dr. Harry March were obsessed with passing sensation Benny Friedman. While his NFL-best 20 touchdown passes his first two years in the league may not seem impressive, consider the league’s next highest scoring team in 1927-28, the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Their leading passer, Ken Mercer, combined for nine touchdown passes in those two seasons. Moreover, the Yellow Jackets played 34 games during that timeframe while Friedman’s two teams played 23. Yardage statistics from this era are incomplete and unreliable, but the box scores don’t lie. Nobody has ever questioned the value of a passer who gets the ball into the end zone.

Even more impressive was the fact that Friedman accomplished this with two different franchises. In his rookie season, Friedman and the 1927 Cleveland Bulldogs led the NFL in scoring. However, the financially strapped Bulldogs disbanded after the season. Friedman and several of his teammates signed on with the Detroit Wolverines (most player contracts were one-year deals anyway), where they led the NFL in scoring again in 1928. In those two years, Friedman and his rag-tag squads squared off with the defensive-minded Giants four times without a loss; the best New York managed was two ties. One of the defeats was thoroughly embarrassing, as Friedman torched the Giants with his legs and arm in a 28-0 blowout at the Polo Grounds. Mara resolved this problem with his purchase of the entire Wolverines franchise in early 1929. To ensure Friedman would agree to play for the Giants, Detroit coach LeRoy Andrews was installed as the head man of the Giants squad.

Jack Hagerty, Benny Friedman, and LeRoy Andrews; New York Giants (1929)

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

In an era dominated by power struggles on the line of scrimmage, punts and drop-kicks, it did not take long for Friedman to become noticed with his passing wizardry. He was the lead man in newsreel highlights with the NFL’s two other transcendent stars, halfback Harold “Red” Grange of the Chicago Bears and fullback Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals. While all three played defense as well as offense, Friedman and Nevers were triple threats who handled the bulk of their respective teams kicking duties.

The Giants gained one star but lost another. The indomitable Cal Hubbard, who was a catalyst for the Giants championship 1927 season, was unhappy living amongst the hustle and bustle of New York City. He preferred a quieter and simpler existence. After playing in a Giants-Packers game in Green Bay in 1928, Hubbard decided that was the place for him. He requested a trade after the season and was accommodated.

Warming Up the Engine

The Giants opened the 1929 regular season in front of 9,000 fans at Knights of Columbus Stadium when they visited the Orange Tornados. The results were familiar in that the defensive battle lacked any portent of offensive genius. New York had a golden opportunity to take the lead early in the second quarter when Ray Flaherty, who jumped from the Yankees to the Giants late in 1928, intercepted a pass at the Giants 45-yard line and returned it to the Orange 10. The Tornados thwarted New York on second-and-goal when they intercepted a Friedman throw. The Giants star had an opportunity to redeem himself in the closing minutes of the game. Friedman drove New York into Orange territory, but his attempted field goal was blocked as time expired, and the game ended in a 0-0 tie.

New York Giants Roster (October 20, 1929)

New York Giants Roster – Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Another defensive battle took place in front of a record throng of 14,000 in Providence when the Giants visited the defending champion Steam Roller. The Providence Journal described the contest as “one of the most bitterly fought games ever seen at the Cycledrome.” The Giants first touchdown of the year came early in the first quarter, and it was mostly a Friedman effort. He set the drive up with a 25-yard punt return before completing successive passes totaling 43 yards. Len Sedbrook then scored from nine-yards out and Friedman’s point-after was successful. That was all of the scoring for the day, but there was plenty of action on the field. First-hand accounts described the Steam Rollers defense as being “savage.” The Giants drove twice more into goal-to-go situations, many of the advances coming from Friedman off-tackle slants, but the Giants were halted on the 1- and 6-yard lines, respectively. Providence was never able to harness any momentum offensively, as New York limited them to just 10 first downs. The Giants won 7-0.

Friedman shared the spotlight with Jack Hagerty the following week at the Polo Grounds for the home opener versus the Staten Island Stapletons. Of the 30,000 spectators, approximately 5,000 enthusiastically supported the visitors. Friedman threw the Giants first touchdown pass of the year in the second quarter, but Ken Strong’s 50-yard touchdown rush and point-after gave Staten Island a 9-7 lead at the half. Hagerty sparked New York with a second-half kickoff return to the 30-yard line and two rushes for 11 and 25 yards, setting up a Friedman-to-Hap Moran touchdown connection. In the fourth quarter, Moran caught a scoring aerial from Hagerty to cap off the 19-9 win. So impressive was Hagerty that The New York Times tagged him as “Ghost Hagerty,” a moniker closely associated with the legendary Grange. Future Giant Ken Strong (1933-35, 1939, 1944-47) drew acclaim for his effort both running and kicking. At the close of the third quarter, his punt from the Stapleton’s 18-yard line flipped field position as the ball was downed on the New York 20. The New York Times estimated the ball traveled close to 75 yards in the air.

Frankford Yellow Jackets at New York Giants (October 20, 1929)

Frankford Yellow Jackets at New York Giants (October 20, 1929)

The Giants momentum carried over to next week’s game against the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Former New York Governor Al Smith was among the 30,000 fans at the Polo Grounds who were treated to a rare offensive showcase. “Friedman, the Giants passing wizard, was the man behind the New York surge,” wrote The New York Times. In the second quarter, Friedman “suddenly began to complete passes all over the lot,” which included scoring strikes of 18, 43 and 25 yards. Leading 19-0 at the half, the Giants switched to the ground game, but the big plays kept coming. Mule Wilson romped 55 yards for a touchdown and in the fourth quarter. Then center Mickey Murtagh was given a turn in the backfield and rambled for a 33-yard touchdown. Frankford only completed two passes for 12 yards on the afternoon while the Giants front stonewalled the run in the 32-0 victory.

Frankford Yellow Jackets at New York Giants (October 20, 1929)

Frankford Yellow Jackets at New York Giants (October 20, 1929)

Full Throttle

Big scoring plays and one-sided wins now became the norm for the Giants. The first four games in November were dominated by Friedman’s passing and an unyielding defensive front wall. Shutouts over aforementioned Frankford (32-0) and Providence (19-0) preceded a tough 26-14 win at Cubs Park over the 4-1-1 Chicago Bears. The road trip resumed just two days later in Buffalo for a Tuesday 45-6 win at Bison Stadium. New York’s first scoring drive took two plays, both Friedman-to-Flaherty connections. Sedbrook later scored on a 70-yard pass from Friedman and Flaherty caught a 50-yard scoring pass from Moran. Things were so bleak for the Bisons that after they scored their only touchdown, Hagerty returned the kickoff 97 yards for another Giants tally. Five days later, the Giants soundly defeated the Orange Tornados 22-0. The Giants overall record now stood at 7-0-1.

The re-match with the Bears at the Polo Grounds was shockingly similar to the game against the Bisons. Chicago came to New York on a skid, having lost to Green Bay and Frankford, and nobody expected anything but a stout effort from George Halas’ squad. The looming threat of bad weather limited the crowd to 15,000, but the ones who braved the elements were rewarded with a record performance. The Friedman aerial circus was unstoppable. The heavy air above the Polo Grounds was filled with 49 New York pass attempts, five resulting in touchdowns. Four of those scoring tosses came from the arm of Friedman, and one by Moran, who was also on the receiving end of two scores.

Glenn Campbell (no helmet, with ball), New York Giants (November 17, 1929)

Glenn Campbell (no helmet, with ball), Chicago Bears at New York Giants (November 17, 1929)

Early on though, Chicago had the edge. The action was mostly on the New York side of the field and Grange, who played with a dislocated shoulder, looked to be the star of the game. After a catch-and-run by the Galloping Ghost gave Chicago a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, New York forced a fumble and recovered. The momentum swing sparked the Giants, whose drive carried over into the second quarter, and ended with Friedman’s first scoring pass. The remainder of the first half saw numerous punt exchanges, including a 70-yarder by the Giants off of the foot of Tony Plansky. The Giants 20-point third-quarter eruption quickly put the game out of reach. Unofficially, Friedman was 13-of-25, four touchdowns, and no interceptions while the Bears as a team were 11-of-24 and intercepted four times. When it was over, New York won 34-0.

Showdown

There was considerable buzz anticipating next week’s match-up against Green Bay. The 9-0 Packers were tied atop the standings with the 8-0-1 Giants (ties did not factor into win percentage.) Green Bay’s strength was their defense. Cal Hubbard had been moved inside to the tackle position where he continued to wreak havoc. Also on the line were future Hall of Fame guard Mike Michalske and All-Pro end Lavvie Dilweg. Halfback Johnny “Blood” McNally, who played end on defense, would also be enshrined in Canton, along with head coach Curly Lambeau, who had finally hung up his cleats and was on the sideline full time.

Benny Friedman, New York Giants vs Green Bay Packers Game Program (November 24, 1929)

New York Giants vs Green Bay Packers Game Program – Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Green Bay went straight at the Giants on the cold, muddy field. Hubbard punched holes in his former team’s first line of defense for fullback Bo Molenda’s advances. The Polo Grounds crowd of 25,000 remained enthusiastic despite Green Bay taking an early 7-0 on a Verne Lewellen touchdown pass to Herdis McCrary. The Giants had an opportunity to answer when Friedman connected with Flaherty for a 65-yard gain. Flaherty was headed for the end zone until he was caught from behind by McNally and dragged down at the 10-yard line. It was a significant play as Freidman’s next attempt was intercepted and the 7-0 score held. The remainder of the first half was scoreless while both powerful lines slugged it out. Lewellen kept the Packers out of danger with 60- and 70-yard punts. Friedman and the Giants struggled to find the rhythm of their passing game that had propelled their success over the past seven games. Even when Friedman wasn’t feeling the rush of Green Bay’s line, his favorite target, Flaherty, struggled to find open space against his counterpart McNally.

Green Bay controlled most of the first 30 minutes of action, but New York fought back. In the third quarter, Friedman completed three passes, interspersed with several line plunges, on a 70-yard drive. Plansky caught the final pass in the end zone to trim the lead to 7-6, as Friedman missed the point-after attempt. The game resumed its tenor from the first half as the lines engaged in their contest of will. The New York passing attack struggled under the Packers pass rush while Green Bay ran plunges and slants into the Giants defense.

The balance of the game tipped suddenly in the fourth quarter. New York seemed to have stopped an advance on third down and set up for a return. Having witnessed Lewellen boom punts consistently all day, the Giants dropped back on fourth down to ready themselves for a return. Lewellen received the snap, skillfully mimed a punting motion, and then connected with McNally on a 26-yard pass. The gain in field position was secondary to the emotional blow dealt to the Giants – they sagged while Green Bay surged. Molenda and McRary ran with confidence through the Giants front wall and finished the 80-yard drive with a touchdown run and a 14-6 lead.

Friedman’s comeback bid ended in disaster. Harassed in a collapsing pocket, he was intercepted by middle guard Jug Earp. The Packers kept the ball on the ground, consuming both time and yards . They put the game away when McNally went over for the touchdown, finishing the 37-yard drive and the Giants bid for first place. Green Bay left the Polo Grounds with a 20-6 victory and 10-0 record while the Giants slipped to 8-1-1.

Finishing Strong

Bruised and beaten, but not without hope, the Giants had a chance to force a tie if they won out and Green Bay dropped a game. It was a short week for both teams as they both played four days later on Thanksgiving. The Giants handled rival Staten Island 21-7, while Green Bay showed some signs of exhaustion as their road trip continued. The game account from Frankford noted the Packers exhibited signs of fatigue after their strenuous effort at the Polo Grounds. The Yellow Jackets advanced to the Packer 2-yard line in the first quarter before turning the ball over. In the fourth quarter, a final promising drive by Frankford ended with a blocked field goal. The game ended in a 0-0 tie and the Packers still sported a perfect 1.000 winning percentage.

1929 New York Giants

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The race continued three days later. Green Bay romped over the Steam Roller in Providence 25-0, while the Giants entertained the Polo Grounds faithful in a thriller against Ernie Nevers and the Chicago Cardinals. Bitter cold temperatures held the crowd to 5,000 but New York turned up the heat early with two Friedman scoring passes. Nevers brought his squad back, throwing a touchdown pass of his own. Chicago added a safety just before the half, and trailed at the break 14-9.

Gene Rose went over for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Cardinals a 15-14 lead as the point-after attempt failed. Nevers extended the lead to 21-14 with his plunge early in the fourth quarter, again, the point-after failed. Led by Plansky, the Giants came back. When he wasn’t carrying the ball on the 80-yard march, Plansky was leading the way with clear-out blocks. He carried the ball on three of the four first-down conversions and went over for the touchdown to complete the drive. Friedman’s placement was good and the game was tied at 21. Although a tie score would not hurt the Giants in their race against Green Bay, a victory could only help their cause.

After forcing a Cardinals punt, New York advanced on a long drive. As the clock ran under five minutes, Friedman was intercepted by Rose at the Chicago 10-yard line. After moving the chains for a first down on two line plunges, Chicago lost a chance to run the clock out when Rose fumbled and Joe Westoupal recovered at the 22-yard line for New York. Friedman was thrown for a 13-yard loss on first down, which pushed the Giants out of sure field-goal range. A completion to Len Sedbrook moved the ball to the 24-yard line. Friedman connected with Sedbrook again at the nine-yard line while the clock ran under one minute to play. On first-and-goal, Friedman was thrown for a loss at the 20. There was time left for just one play. Plansky received the snap from center and booted a drop-kick from the left hash on the 32-yard line, which went through the uprights as the timekeeper’s whistle blew. The Giants escaped, pulling out the 24-21 win.

New York rolled through the remainder of their schedule. Back-to-back shutouts over Frankford (12-0 and 31-0) preceded a 14-9 win at Cubs Park again over the Bears. Unfortunately for the Giants, Green Bay held serve and finished their schedule with a 25-0 romp over the Bears to close their unbeaten campaign 12-0-1, just ahead of New York’s 13-1-1 tally. In a league yet without a championship game, the Green Bay Packers were crowned NFL Champions.

The Giants still had much to be proud of. Friedman’s 20 touchdown passes set a standard that would stand until 1942. For the third season in a row, Friedman’s team led the NFL is scoring. The Giants scored 312 points (no other team reached 200), averaging 20.8 points per game while the league as a whole averaged 9.6. The output was the second-highest total in NFL history up until that point. The record of 326 had been set by Frankford in 1924, but they accomplished it in a very different style. Of their 43 offensive touchdowns, 38 came on the ground and only five through the air. The 1929 New York Giants scored 45 touchdowns from scrimmage, 19 rushing and 26 passing. The Giants scoring differential was the best in the NFL at +226. The champion Packers were second with +176.

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1929)

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1929)

It is not surprising that the top three scoring receivers in the NFL were all Giants. Flaherty was first with eight, Sedbrook second with six and Moran third with five. Individual honors were bestowed upon four Giants. Named first-team All-Pro were center Joe Wostoupal, tailback Benny Friedman, fullback Tony Plansky and end Ray Flaherty.

The difference in the season was the November meeting between what were clearly the two best teams that year. The balance of power undoubtedly swung with the offseason trade of future Hall of Famer Cal Hubbard. Green Bay was able to control the tempo of much of that 20-6 win with their line play. It was the only contest that season where the Giants were outplayed on the line of scrimmage. Their front could not contain the Packers running game nor protect their passer. It is no stretch to believe that had Hubbard been amiable to staying in New York, the Giants would have won their second title in 1929.

History would repeat itself as Green Bay and New York continued to be the top two teams in the NFL again in 1930. The Giants led the NFL in scoring on Friedman’s right arm while they chased the methodical Packers in the standings. They split their head-to-head meetings that year, with each team victorious on its home field. At season’s end, Green Bay was first at 10-3-1 and the Giants second at 13-4-0. The NFL’s preposterous practice of not counting tie games was significant here. Not counting the tie, the Packers finished with a 0.769 win percentage and the Giants with a 0.765 win percentage. Retroactive application of the current method of calculation where a tie game is treated as a half-win and half loss, the Packer’s win percentage drops them into second place at 0.750. In other words, the Giants would have been crowned NFL Champions using the current formula.

The Giants slipped to 7-6-1 in 1931. Friedman suffered a serious knee injury that forced him to miss six games and limited his effectiveness the remainder of his career. He left the Giants during the offseason in 1932 after a contract squabble with Tim Mara. Friedman wanted the interest in the team that had been surrendered by Dr. March. Friedman moved on to become player/coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers for the next three seasons, while also serving as the head coach for the Yale football team. The Giants drafted tailback Harry Newman from the University of Michigan in 1933 as Friedman’s replacement. The Giants would play in the NFL’s first Championship Game that same year against the Chicago Bears.

Jun 152014
 
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1927 New York Giants

1927 New York Football Giants – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

The early attempts to organize professional football were no doubt sincere. But results were minimal. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that trial-and-error was the guiding principal for many of the organizational efforts by the nascent National Football League (NFL). Even its first name, the American Professional Football Association (APFA), required refinement. At least that was a quick-and-easy fix; many others were not.

APFA President Joe Carr (who served from 1921-39 and is known as the man who brought respectability to professional football) was quick and decisive to correct faults. His simple philosophy was the sport should always strive for the highest possible standards and the public should be considered first, last and always.

The lack of standardized player contracts, make-shift schedules and franchise instability were paramount issues that were gradually rectified over time. However, with no post-season play until 1933, the most public controversies were the ones that came after the close of each season (the end to each season being sometimes ambiguous itself) when more than one team claimed itself league champions. Four of the first six APFA/NFL titles were publically disputed, hurting the credibility of the pro game with a sporting public who clearly preferred the college game at the time.

It didn’t help any that the first controversy came after the APFA’s inaugural 1920 season. The lack of structure was astounding and nobody had the foresight to recognize that it was lacking. There were 14 teams stacked top-to-bottom, with a convoluted method of calculating win percentage (remarkably, the all-too-common ties were discounted); no coherent tie-breakers; unbalanced, makeshift schedules that teams modified during the season; and a lack of a clearly defined conclusion to the season. This was a recipe for disaster.

Even worse, most of the early championships were not awarded until an oft-contentious vote at the spring meetings, months after the last game had been played. The title outcome was inevitably anti-climactic.

A Litany of Confusion, Confrontation and Conspiracy

Intrigue surrounded the 1920 Championship as three teams claimed ownership of the title. It also illuminated the folly of treating tie games as non-entities.

The Akron Pros appeared atop the APFA with a record of 8-0-3. However, the unbalanced schedule saw two teams with more victories than Akron. The Decatur Staleys (soon to be known as the Chicago Bears) were second with a 10-1-2 record, and third were the Buffalo All-Americans at 9-1-1. Both challengers supported their bids by highlighting the fact that the Pros did not beat either of them, having played both to 0-0 ties.

Regardless, the vote at the April owners meeting went to Akron. Interestingly, applying the tie-breaker principle that was put in place in 1972 that calculates tie games as a half-win and half-loss, Akron and Buffalo would have tied for first place with a win percentage of 0.864 and Decatur third with 0.846. Buffalo and Decatur may have left dissatisfied, but this was nothing compared to what they would be embroiled in next season.

As the 1921 season was coming to a close, the renamed Chicago Staleys and Buffalo All-Americans found themselves in a fight for first place. They met on Thanksgiving Day with the All-Americans coming out on top 7-6. The win vaulted Buffalo to the top of the APFA standings with a 7-0-2 record and dropped Chicago to second at 6-1-0. Buffalo won their remaining two games to finish 9-0-2 and publically touted themselves as league champions. The Staleys played one more game against Green Bay, which they won, and finished their schedule at 7-1.

At this point, the Staleys owner-player-coach George Halas challenged Buffalo owner Frank McNeil to a rematch on his turf. McNeil accepted, but allegedly on the grounds that the game be treated as an exhibition contest. The 10-7 Chicago win served as a catalyst for turmoil. Now within a win of 9-1-2 Buffalo, Halas quickly scheduled two more games on his home field against Canton and the Chicago Cardinals, winning one and tying the other.

Halas successfully petitioned the league’s owners to award his 9-1-1 team the league crown. His claim was unique, and the ultimate decision at the April owners’ meetings set a significant precedent, despite McNeil’s objections. Halas argued not only that the aggregate score of the two Buffalo-Chicago contests (which favored the Bears 16-14) be taken into consideration, but that the second game be given more weight in that it had more importance being nearer the close of the season. The majority of owners decided that the outcome of the second head-to-head contest should carry more weight. That policy would remain through 1932.

Fortunately for Carr and the rest of the now renamed National Football League, the 1922 and 1923 seasons were without title dispute as player-coach Guy Chamberlin’s Canton Bulldogs trucked through the competition with nearly unscathed records of 10-0-2 and 11-0-1. Despite their on-field success, Canton struggled financially and suspended operations for the 1924 season.

Sam Deustch, owner of the Cleveland Indians franchise, quickly signed seven members of the Canton roster, including Chamberlin, and signed Michigan Wolverine passing sensation Benny Friedman after his college graduation. The bolstered Cleveland team, which included a late-season addition of tackle Steve Owen from the Kansas City Cowboys, defeated the Chicago Bears 16-14 in their opener and faced little competition the rest of the season, losing and tying the Frankford Yellow Jackets on their way to a 7-1-1 record. All of this factored into another convoluted, off-field fight to determine the league’s championship, but in this case to the betterment of the league’s reputation as a loop-hole would be closed in the process.

The league standings, at the still-ambiguous close of the 1924 season, stacked up in this order: Cleveland 7-1-1 (0.875 win percentage), Chicago 6-1-4 (0.857) and Frankford 11-2-1 (0.846). Halas attempted similar tactics that worked in his favor in 1921. After a Thanksgiving Day win boosted the Bears record to 5-1-4, he scheduled a game against the weak Milwaukee Badgers, which Chicago won 31-14, then challenged Cleveland to a rematch.

Carr stepped in and ruled that the schedule retroactively officially ended November 30. Teams were permitted to continue playing, but those contests would be rendered with an exhibition status and would not count in the official league standings. Cleveland was awarded the championship, Chamberlin’s third in a row.

The next season in 1925, another precedent was set, one which would significantly support the New York Giants tenuous franchise.

College football was still a significantly larger draw than professional football. The Pottsville Maroons and Frankford Yellow Jackets had an agreement that the better team in the region would host the Notre Dame All Stars in Philadelphia. The teams split their head-to-head games, but Pottsville’s 49-0 advantage in the second game and their better record was decisive. Frankford ostensibly believed Pottsville ran up the score in their landslide victory, and petitioned the league office that Pottsville hosting the game in Philadelphia was an infringement on their territory. To underscore their point, Frankford scheduled a game versus Cleveland at Frankford Stadium, which was just outside of Philadelphia, on the same date. Moving or cancelling the game would be a financial disaster the Maroons would not be able to absorb, as the All Stars would not appear for a game at Pottsville’s high school stadium at Minersville Park.

Carr sided with the plaintiff Yellow Jackets and telegrammed the Maroons to move or cancel the exhibition contest. Pottsville owner John Streigel declared his intent to still play the game. Streigel later said he received verbal permission from Carr to play the All Stars at Shibe Park, even though Carr issued two subsequent statements claiming the opposite.

Carr suspended Pottsville from the league immediately following the exhibition contest, and awarded their scheduled game at Providence on December 13 to Frankford. Nevertheless, Pottsville’s 10-2 record and convincing head-to-head win against the Chicago Cardinals paced them ahead of the 9-2-1 Cardinals. However since the league’s end date had been previously set at December 20, Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien scheduled two more home games against weaker teams to pad his team’s win total.

When the season finally ended on December 20, the top of the standings had the Cardinals in first at 11-2-1 and Pottsville 10-2-0. Pottsville was not represented at the owners meeting when the crown was given to the Cardinals since they were still barred from the league.

New York, New York

Given all that tumult, it is easy to forget that professional football finally placed a permanent foothold in the nation’s largest city, New York, which had been a part of Carr’s vision for long-term league success. Carr had originally envisioned boxing promoter Billy Gibson to be the founder, but he deferred instead to friend Tim Mara. Present at the meeting was also the football-knowledgeable Dr. Harry March. March had been vital in the success of the APFA/NFL’s predecessor, the Ohio League, where he had served as the team physician for the Canton Bulldogs. Mara took March on as a minority owner and installed him as team President to take charge of assembling a quality roster.

The Giants fared reasonably well for their first season of competition in 1925, finishing the year 8-4, but they struggled to attract paying customers. In fact, tickets for games at the Polo Grounds were routinely handed out free of charge to fill empty seats. It wasn’t until a visit from Illinois superstar Harold “Red” Grange, who had made the mid-season leap from college to the Chicago Bears, that the Giants could declare a profit and decide to move forward with their franchise. The possibility of the Giants dissolving after one season was very real, as nine other franchises had disbanded or left the NFL during or after their inaugural season of play.

The Polo Grounds seating capacity for football was normally around 55,000, but the demand to see the already legendary Grange was so irresistible that temporary seating was put in place in the outfield and standing room only tickets were issued. The gate was estimated to be in excess of 70,000 and photographs from the event support this claim. The only other time the Polo Grounds was that full was for the game against the Notre Dame All Stars in 1930. Not even the five post-season contests the Giants hosted in the Polo Grounds in later years against stalwart franchises Chicago, Green Bay and Washington had as many.

Irony reared its head just a few short months later when Grange’s manager, Charles C. Pyle, found a loophole in the contract with the Bears and signed Grange. Pyle prematurely leased Yankee Stadium before he even had a team. But Pyle had Grange so he had leverage. When Pyle approached Carr on the idea of expansion in New York, Mara and March balked. The prospect of having a team with Grange playing within walking distance of the Polo Grounds would spell the Giants doom. As tempting as it was to have Grange headlining the marquee in New York, Carr had no choice but to follow the precedent he’d set the prior season in the dispute between Frankford and Pottsville. Carr upheld Mara’s claim to having “exclusive right to anything in New York.” Being spurned but resolute, Pyle formed his own league to feature his star player, the first-ever American Football League (AFL).

This was now a league-wide threat for Carr and his constituents. The AFL attempted, and sometimes did, lure players from the established but still tenuous NFL. The Giants lost both their best lineman Century Milstead and head coach Robert Folwell to the upstart league. Part of Carr’s response to the new threat was to reinstate the Pottsville franchise, being fearful that team would sign with Pyle. Also, he forged an agreement with the Giants to allow a franchise in Brooklyn. Carr feared the AFL establishing two franchises in New York and wanted to beat them to the punch. He assured the Giants that the Brooklyn team’s schedule would not conflict with the Giants. This was keen foresight on Carr’s part, as the AFL then placed a franchise in nearby Newark, New Jersey. Just one year after having a single professional football team in New York, the metropolitan area now had four! The man most responsible for saving the Giants franchise in 1925, Red Grange, now threatened to render them irrelevant.

The 1926 season played out much like the one before for the Giants. Their 8-4-1 record was similar and so was their attendance. With no draw like Grange to fill the house and player salaries increasing with the competing league, the Giants finished in the red financially. They did win the war against Pyle however. Following the season, Mara and March hosted a game at Yankee Stadium against the AFL Champion Philadelphia Quakers. The motivated sixth-place Giants team manhandled the Quakers at the Polo Grounds 31-0, leaving no doubt as to which league was superior. Fortunately the crowning of the NFL champion was not business as usual. All was calm and everyone was in agreement when the title was bestowed upon Chamberlin’s 14-1-2 Frankford team. It was his fourth championship with his third team in only five seasons, a feat that has yet to be equaled.

Contraction and Contrition

The AFL disappeared just as quickly as it emerged. Although the Yankees drew well wherever they went, the rest of the league seemed to go unnoticed. The debts incurred by the NFL teams were a fraction of those compared to the ones suffered by the AFL. The Giants fortunes seemed to turn around quickly following that boastful triumph over the Quakers.

The dissolution of the nine-team AFL was a significant coup for the NFL, which had fielded 22 teams in 1926. The available talent was spread thin over the total of 31 teams in operation between the two leagues. A series of difficult ownership meetings that off season resulted in the contraction of the NFL. Gone were sentimental favorites with Ohio League roots like Canton, Akron, Hammond and Columbus. It was just not practical for the league’s survival to maintain franchises in locations lacking growth potential. For the NFL to become a big-time league it had to play in big-time cities, and having better players on those teams improved the quality of the product on the field.

The NFL would field 12 teams for the 1927 season. Ten were NFL survivors of the great purge of 1926, plus the return of the Cleveland Bulldogs following a year of suspended operations. Pyle’s Yankees team, which had the distinction of becoming the forty-first franchise in the APFA/NFL’s seventh season of operation, was the sole newcomer from the now-defunct AFL . The only small market team continuing on was publically-owned Green Bay.

Part of the consolidation directly benefitted the Giants. The Brooklyn Horsemen disbanded, but Carr kept its charter active. It was awarded to Mara as payment for unresolved debts. Soon after, Pyle returned to Carr’s office seeking admission to the NFL. This time Mara and March had no objections. Mara leased the former Brooklyn charter to Pyle, who would continue to feature Red Grange at Yankee Stadium. But the Football Yankees schedule would be tightly restricted. The Yankees would primarily be a traveling team, and their few home games would not coincide with Giants home games. Lastly, the season would end with a home-and-home competition for the City Championship.

With Pyle being reduced from threat to nuisance, the focus of the New York Giants was now on team building. Having less competition and a larger talent pool to select from, Mara confidently told March, “I don’t care what it costs but get the players you need. I want a winner this year.”

March’s vision was simple and the approach primal. After installing Earl Pottieger the Giants third head coach in just their third season, this Giants team would be built for power and control both sides of the line of scrimmage. The roster was composed mostly of veterans and was unusually deep; there would be little drop-off in performance when a sub was called upon.

Joe Alexander and George Murtagh, New York Giants (1927)

Joe Alexander and George Murtagh – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Mickey Murtagh returned at center from the 1926 team. Hec Garvey and Al Nesser were well-traveled and experienced guards. Nesser was familiar to March as he was one of the seven famed Nesser brothers who played for Carr’s Columbus Panhandles in the Ohio League. They were professional football’s original “royal family” and their reputation was rock solid. Legendary Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne competed against them as a member of the Massilon Tigers and famously stated, “Getting hit by a Nesser is like falling off a moving train.” Al brought championship experience, having been a member of the 1920 Akron Pros. Joe “Doc” Alexander, a remnant from the inaugural 1925 Giants, backed them up when available, as his medical practice demanded much of his time.

The left tackle was one of the largest and toughest players in all of professional football, Steve Owen. March brought Owen to the Giants the prior year after observing him as a member of the 1925 Kansas City Cowboys. The Cowboys had visited the Polo Grounds that season and later served as the Giants barnstorming team after the regular season. Owen was a man who relished having his hand in the dirt, “We were pretty much a smash and shove gang. We were bone crushers, not fancy Dans.” Wilbur “Pete” Henry, a member of the 1922 and 1923 champion Canton Bulldogs, served as the right tackle for the early portion of the season. The sub for Owen and Henry was Dick Stahlman.

The athletic Chuck Corgan, who had been a teammate of Owen in Kansas City, was a good receiving end. On the other side was the rookie wunderkind Cal Hubbard. At 6’4” and 245 pounds, he was the largest member of a team stocked with big men. But it was his unusual speed and agility that made him one-of-a-kind. He did more than just set the edge for end runs. Hubbard would routinely knock his counterpart on his back and continue his path of destruction downfield, springing Giant ball carriers for long gains. He was also a premier defender, patrolling the line of scrimmage as an end or prototype linebacker. His ascension to stardom was as brutal as it was quick. Wellington Mara recalled Hubbard years later, “You could tell when Cal hit a man. You would hear it on the bench – a hard, dull boom.”

The backfield may have lacked the notoriety of the group blocking for them, but it was talented and versatile. The mainstays were tailback Hinkey Haines and fullback Jack McBride, both members of the 1925 Giants. They complimented one-another with a blend of power and speed. McBride was the power back who bulled through the line while Haines rushed around the corner with elusiveness and speed. Atypical of the common trend though, the fullback McBride was the Giants primary passer, whereas the tailback for most teams performed that role. McBride was also the primary kicker, whether from a drop-kick or placement. The versatile Doug Wycoff subbed both positions. Mule Wilson was the lead blocking back, and he was backed up by Jack Hagerty, who was moved from the halfback position he’d played during the 1926 season. A veteran presence was provided by the former Ohio Leaguer Joe Guyon, who played multiple roles including wingback. Guyon had been a teammate of Jim Thorpe’s with the Canton Bulldogs in the Ohio League in 1919 and also with the NFL’s Oorang Indians in 1921 and 1922. Phil White served as a utility sub for halfback and fullback.

Power Football

Steve Owen and Cal Hubbard, New York Giants (1927)

Steve Owen and Cal Hubbard – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Following a dress rehearsal against the Orange Athletic Club, the Giants opened their regular-season campaign by disappointing 7,500 Providence fans with a stifling 8-0 victory over the Steam Roller. The local press lauded the Giants “great forward wall” and singled out Cal Hubbard, “He put on one of the greatest displays of line work ever seen on a Providence gridiron.” The rookie set up New York’s only touchdown by blocking a punt that Owen recovered at the Providence 2-yard line. Hubbard was also instrumental in limiting the home team to five first downs.

The defense continued its good work at Cleveland the following week, but the offense sputtered. It was surprising that only 3,000 fans attended given that it was their first opportunity to witness the home debut of rookie passing sensation Benny Friedman. Friedman moved the ball well but the Giants defense was stout when most needed. Doug Wycoff returned a punt 70 yards for New York, but the rest of the special teams performance was dreadful. The Giants missed five field goals and left Cleveland with a 0-0 tie.

Following a 19-0 win in front of 5,000 fans in Pottsville, where New York’s subs enjoyed plenty of second-half playing time, the Giants returned home to the Polo Grounds, unfortunately to second billing.

New York Giants vs Cleveland Bulldogs (October 16, 1927)In the re-match against Cleveland, Friedman arrived several days ahead of his Bulldog teammates and was lavished with several honors, not the least of which was a gala event in his honor at the Hotel Majestic. Despite this being just his fourth professional game, he was easily one of the NFL’s marquis attractions among the likes of newsreel sensations Red Grange and Ernie Nevers. The Giants even printed the tickets for the game to read: “N.Y. Giants vs Benny Friedman’s Bulldogs”.

All of the pomp may seem excessive, but to his credit, Friedman lived up to the billing. Even as a rookie he was audacious in his play calling, throwing the ball on first down and from deep in his own territory when the common practice at the time would call for conservative line plunges or a punt. Although the crowd at the Polo Grounds was not nearly as large as the one to see Grange two years earlier, the Giants had to be pleased with the turnstile count of 25,000.

The Giants strong line controlled most of the first half, but the game was tied 0-0 at halftime after Jack McBride missed a field goal attempt. The third quarter began with an exchange of punts, then Cleveland’s speed got the better of New York’s muscle. Friedman connected on a 35-yard pass to Tiny Feather down to the Giants 30-yard line, followed by a 15-yard completion to Jim Simmons to the 14. Friedman and Simmons alternated rushes until Simmons went over for the score from the one-yard line. This was the only score of the game (Friedman was wide on his point-after attempt) and the first of the season yielded by the Giants. But Cleveland won the game 6-0 and the Giants fell to 2-1-1. Friedman ended the afternoon 11-17 passing, which was very respectable for the time and unheard of in a winning effort. Normally that many pass attempts came in desperate, come-from-behind situations.

Although New York fielded a quality team, something was amiss. Aside from the poor tackling exhibited in the second half of the loss to Cleveland, the running game on offense was sporadic. The Giants made a move by sending the powerful but slowing Pete Henry to Pottsville. They then signed Century Milstead, who was idle after a one-year hiatus with the rival AFL’s Philadelphia team. He had been the best lineman on New York’s 1925 team.

Al Nesser, New York Giants (1927)

Al Nesser – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The infusion of relative youth and tangible athleticism was appreciably noticed during a home-and-home weekend against the defending-champion Yellow Jackets. As was their custom, Frankford played their home games on Saturday as Sunday spectacles were prohibited by local blue laws. Often they would follow up a Saturday game at Frankford Stadium with an away game against the same team on Sunday. The rushing game was greatly improved, as the Philadelphia press cited Haines for “having an outstanding game” for New York in their 13-0 victory.

At the Polo Grounds rematch, a 20-point second quarter for New York was highlighted by a spectacular defensive play that brought the crowd of 15,000 to its feet. Jack Hagerty intercepted a pass at his own 47-yard line, sidestepped two Yellow Jackets, cut up-field, stiff-armed a would-be tackler along the sideline, and eluded several others until he was dragged down from behind at the 3-yard line for a 50-yard return. Phil White went over for the touchdown and the Giants subs held Frankford off the scoreboard in the second half to finish the 27-0 victory.

The following week saw a physical, altercation-filled scrum with Pottsville. The New York defense was dominant once again, registering a safety in a 16-0 win. The 20,000 Polo Grounds faithful must have been amused when a second safety was awarded after the Maroons punter had lined up beyond the end line to receive the snap despite several warnings to correct his position from the closest official.

The Giants played host to another of the NFL’s early stars the next week when Ernie Nevers arrived with his traveling Duluth Eskimos. They represented Duluth in name only, having played in the city only once in 1926. The Eskimos counted on lucrative visitor’s shares of the gate by playing an all-road schedule in large venues such as the Polo Grounds. The 15,000 who showed up may have been a mild disappointment to the Giants, but it was far more than Duluth could realistically hope for in northern Minnesota.

Jack McBride, New York Giants (1927)

Jack McBride – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Nevers was the second most famous player in the league after Grange, and some observers believed him to be of equal talent. Nevers was a triple threat on offense, played rock solid defense and could be counted on to play close to the full 60 minutes every game, occasionally completing the duration without a trip to the bench. Glenn “Pop” Warner, who coached Nevers at Stanford famously called him, “the football player without a fault.”

The Giants powerful defense did yield yardage to Nevers, who was cited by the press for giving “a strenuous effort,” but again refused to yield a point. The Eskimos penetrated the New York 30-yard line five times but came away empty. Three of those drives ended with interceptions while the other two saw them halted on downs. Jack McBride engineered three scoring drives for New York. The final one featured an exclamation-point 25-yard touchdown pass to Hinkey Haines to close out the 21-0 win.

At 6-1-1, the Giants may have been pleased with their place in the standings. But a three-way race with the Packers and Bears for the number one spot in the league made it clear that there was no time to rest on laurels. Tuesday was Election Day and the Providence Steam Roller was coming to the Polo Grounds, while on the other side of the Harlem River the Bears would be visiting their old teammate Red Grange and the Yankees. This would be Grange’s first game back after tearing a ligament in his knee at Cubs Park back in October, and it was the Yankees first home game of the season.

The Giants played in front of their largest house of the year; 38,000 fans showed up for a football triple header, as the Giants and Steam Roller played following two high school games. The headliners did not disappoint. The Giants capitalized on three big plays in all three phases of the game: Mule Wilson’s 54-yard interception return, Jack McBride’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Jack Hagerty and Hagerty’s 53-yard punt return. Most of the fans probably forgave the Giants for missing three of their four point-after attempts in the 25-0 victory after learning the rival Yankees, with a limping Grange, upset Chicago 26-6. End Ray Flaherty, who would join the Giants in 1928, starred for the Yankees that afternoon by hauling in three touchdown receptions. The Giants now held the top spot in the NFL and had the inside track to the championship if they could win out the rest of the way.

The Giants had next been scheduled to play the Buffalo Bisons, but the Bisons disbanded mid-season. Instead, the Giants played a non-league exhibition at Staten Island against the Stapletons. Showing no fear of travel or injury, the Giants then visited Boston to play another exhibition game against Pierre Marquette the Saturday before a crucial league contest against the Chicago Cardinals, who were now coached by Chamberlin. The Cardinals held no advantage as they played at Frankford on Saturday as well.

The Giants jumped all over the visiting Cardinals early, scoring three touchdowns in the game’s first 10 minutes. New York’s subs played to a stalemate as the Giants coasted to a critically important 28-7 victory that maintained their slim advantage over the Bears who were next on the docket. Chicago was in a second place tie with Green Bay, but both of the Packers losses were to the Bears so the Packers only hope for first place would be both teams above them collapsing.

Strength Versus Strength

Again, the Giants participated in a non-league exhibition at Staten Island the Thursday prior to their biggest game of the season. The 8-1-1 Giants knew owner-player-coach Halas would have his 7-2-1 Bears ready to go, as he had been in this situation many times before. A Chicago win would give the teams matching 8-2-1 records and the Bears a late-season head-to-head victory. Should both teams win out after that, history had already demonstrated Halas’ persuasiveness among the league’s owners in regard to championship votes. Ironically, the situation could even have been in reverse. In the event of a tie, the Giants would be the team in position to challenge the Bears to a rematch. Knowing the precedent set in 1921 with the Bears and Buffalo, would Halas have even accepted and risked a title he may have believed already belonged to him?

Were it not for miserable cold and the threat of snow, the crowd of 15,000 at the Polo Grounds probably would have been much larger, as the local press had well-publicized the significance of the game. Although no official NFL championship game yet existed, this was as close to it as you could get. The winner in all likelihood would end up being crowned champion, even if they had to wait until April for it to be declared official!

If any team were capable of matching the Giants on the line of scrimmage it was the Bears. They had two future Hall of Famers at the tackle positions: Link Lyman and Ed Healy. Center George Trafton was an All-Pro. The backfield featured future Hall of Fame halfback Paddy Driscoll and tailback/quarterback Dutch Sternaman. Sternaman co-coached the Bears with Halas.

The Bears front line asserted itself early. After receiving the opening kickoff, Chicago pounded away at New York’s defense, moving the chains until facing a first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Three line plunges set the Bears up with fourth-and-goal on the one. Halas wanted six and ordered Sternaman to go for it. Fullback Jack White took the ball on a handoff, but as he attempted to vault over the wall of crashing bodies, White was hammered in mid-air and knocked backward by Al Nesser.

Hinkey Haines and Jack McBride, New York Giants (1927)

Hinkey Haines and Jack McBride – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The scoring threat was thwarted, but New York was still in trouble. Not surprising for the era, the Giants lined up in punt formation of first down. Mule Wilson was deep to receive the snap. The up-back Hinkey Haines cautioned him to line up correctly with his heels in front of the end line, recalling the incident with Pottsville’s punt several weeks earlier, and requested that the referee wipe mud off of the ball with a towel for a more accurate snap. Chicago realized the predicament the Giants were in and jammed nine men on the line of scrimmage. While the official wiped the ball down, Haines discreetly deepened his position a few steps and surveyed Chicago’s deployment as he called the signals. Haines received a direct snap and lofted a perfect pass to Chuck Corgan over the unguarded middle. The Bears had only two men deep and did not take Corgan down until he had advanced beyond midfield to Chicago’s 41-yard line.

Although the Bears kept the Giants off of the scoreboard, the stunning 58-yard play not only tipped the field position back to the Giants favor, it also quelled the surge of momentum the Bears had in their favor with the long opening drive. The action largely took place around mid-field for the remainder of the first half with the teams exchanging punts. At the half, the game was deadlocked 0-0.

The third quarter began much the same way, but the Giants received a jolt in an unlikely fashion. On the Giants second possession of the half, Halas attempted to clip Joe Guyon. Guyon had heard him coming though. As Halas launched himself, Guyon pivoted and rammed his knees into Hala’s chest, sending him to cold turf breathless. As Halas was helped off the field with two broken ribs, Guyon slyly told his Giants captain Steve Owen, “That fellow ought to know you can’t sneak up behind an Indian.”

The ensuing 15-yard penalty on Halas was the spark New York had been looking for. Jack McBride punctured the Chicago front for a total of 53-yards on the 60-yard drive and went over for the touchdown from the two on a fourth-and-goal. The point-after was missed so the score held at 6-0. Another exchange of punts had the Bears pinned on their own two, and a poor punt only moved the ball out to the 30. McBride mixed runs with passes. Three line plunges from goal-to-go gave him his second touchdown of the quarter. And this time the point-after was good. The Giants led 13-0 as the quarter came to an end.

Undeterred, Driscoll took the Bears down the field as he did to start the game. Noticing that the New York front seemed to be growing fatigued, Sternaman kept calling for rushes as Chicago pushed and pounded the ball to the Giants 10-yard line. Here the Bears reached deep into their playbook and changed up their strategy entirely, lining up in a spread formation. Sternaman caught a pass from Laurie Walquist and darted into the end zone. The point after was good and the lead was trimmed to 13-7.

The concluding 10 minutes of action was fierce and physical, both powerful lines traded blows but neither offense could advance until Chicago’s last possession. A trade of punts preceded a last valiant effort by the Bears. The Chicago running game found a few creases and moved into New York territory with the clock running after each carry. The tiring Giant defense was bending and Chicago had the ball on the 17-yard line. Perhaps feeling a sense of desperation with the clock now just under 2:00 or recalling how the Bears last scoring drive ended, Sternaman called the first pass play of the possession. Mule Wilson made the play for New York and intercepted the throw. The Giants ran three plays to run out the clock. The chilled crowd celebrated the thrilling win, but the victors and losers were too spent to react.

“It was the hardest game any of us ever played,” said Steve Owen. “I played sixty minutes at tackle opposite Jim McMillen, who later became a world wrestling champion. When the gun ended the exhausting game, both of us just sat on the ground in the middle of the field. He smiled in a tired way, reached over to me, and we shook hands. We didn’t say a word; we couldn’t. It was fully five minutes before we got up to go to the dressing room.”

Once inside the locker-room, little changed. Hinkey Haines described the ironic scene, “That victory just about gave us the championship, but you’d have thought we all were just given walking papers.”

March tended to his battered victors, “Some of them looked like they’d never walk again.”

The key plays in the first quarter still reverberated. “Al Nesser (who stopped the Bears on fourth-and-goal from the one) was the real hero,” said Century Milstead. “Bare-headed and with no shoulder guards, he just kept submarining their running plays. He was battered but he never quit.” Owen complimented the selling of the fake punt, “Haines called one of the smartest plays I’ve ever seen to win for us. He stage-managed it perfectly.”

The New York Times led off the Monday game summary superlatively: “The Giants powerful forward wall met their equal in the Chicago Bears’ line yesterday and the battle that ensued was one of the most brilliant and savagely fought in the three years of professional football in New York…The play was spirited through sixty minutes of action, both elevens traveling at a fast and furious pace.”

The New York Daily News singled out the Giants touchdown maker: “Jack McBride was the outstanding figure in this grim grid struggle, counting both Giant touchdowns in a wild burst of ground spurning in the third quarter after the first half had been scoreless.”

Settling One Final Score

The Giants truly needed the full week off following their most important triumph in the franchise’s short history. They must have been relieved to not have any exhibition contests interrupt their recovery. The season-ending home-and-home matches with their neighboring Yankees were most likely anti-climactic for most observers. But there is no doubt some within the Giants organization relished watching “arrogance being humbled” first hand as the Giants swept Pyle’s team 14-0 and 13-0 in miserable weather in front of small crowds. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were among the 10,000 fans who braved the snow and sleet to watch the first game at the Polo Grounds in support of Grange’s team. Haines quickly dampened any enthusiasm they may have brought as he returned a first quarter punt 75 yards for a touchdown. Only 8,000 came through the turnstiles the following week to watch the two teams slosh around in the Yankee Stadium mud. Ball handling was treacherous in a fumble-filled contest. Joe Guyon was a featured ball carrier in these two games and contributed significantly to both Giants victories.

To his credit, Grange’s heart was stronger than his damaged knee. He played as long as he could and suffered a beating as the Giants repeatedly gang-tackled him after short gains. He hung tough, finished the first game and came out late in the second only after the outcome had been decided. Unfortunately the fans chose to express their disappointment in his performance by booing him, despite the fact he was the Yankees leading passer and had several good punt returns.

A Team For The Ages

It was a relatively inglorious end to an 11-1-1 season that had been anything but that. Yardage statistics from the 1920’s and early ‘30’s are sketchy. Some beat writers compiled such stats for the teams they covered, as did some teams. Over the years, historians have attempted to make calculations from news stories, but all such attempts are fragmentary and therefore not officially recognized. Jack McBride may have led the Giants in both passing and rushing in 1927. There is no doubt he led the Giants in passing yardage by a wide margin; the rushing total could be up for debate. He and Hinkey Haines carried the ball close to the same number of times. Given Haines’ break–away ability, a missing long gainer or two could easily tip the scale in his favor.

Hinkey Haines, New York Giants (1927)

Hinkey Haines, New York Giants (1927)

Scoring records are reliable though. McBride led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with six. Including his two field goals and league-leading 15 point-afters, McBride also led the NFL in total scoring. McBride finished second (behind Friedman) in touchdown passes with six. His favorite target on scoring plays was Haines, who finished tied for first in the NFL with Ray Flaherty with four scoring receptions.

The post-season accolades, albeit diverse and unofficial, were abundant and adulatory. Various media outlets that covered professional football would comprise their own All Pro-style lists of players after each season. Not surprisingly, the most consistent over the early years was the daily paper from the football-crazed town of northern Wisconsin, The Green Bay Press-Gazette.

New York Giants who appeared on more than one first team list included: Cal Hubbard, End; Steve Owen, Tackle (though sometimes on these lists he was slotted in the Guard position); Jack McBride, Fullback (surprisingly usurping the great Ernie Nevers on occasion here); and Al Nesser, Guard.

Of course, the ultimate personal recognition is receiving a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio. Four members of the 1927 Giants have their likeness on display there for future generations of fans to admire: Steve Owen, Cal Hubbard, Joe Guyon and Wilbur “Pete” Henry.

In terms of perpetuity, New York set a record that realistically is not likely ever to be broken: the Giants shut out 10 of their 13 opponents, surpassing the nine shutouts by the Canton Bulldogs in 1922. Cumulatively, the Giants only gave up 20 points all season (Canton only gave up 15 points over 12 games in 1922).

The legacy of the 1927 Giants was power and control at the line of scrimmage. They were built to succeed in an era where the rules and equipment demanded conservative play in battles of field position. The few times New York exhibited weakness was when encountering speed (the two games they failed to win were the loss and tie against Friedman’s Bulldogs) and when they were spread horizontally (the touchdown they surrendered against the Bears.) After he retired, Red Grange summed up the 1927 champions succinctly: “It was the best football team of its time. Their line beat the hell out of you and wore you down, and their backs could move the ball. But they would have been passed off the field by the top teams of the 30’s.”

May 262014
 
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Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants (January 2, 1983)

Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants (January 2, 1983)

90 Years of New York Football Giants: New York Giants All-Time Team

By Larry Schmitt with contributions from Daniel Franck, Rev. Mike Moran, and Eric Kennedy
Special thanks to John Berti for use of his exclusive All-Time Giants roster.

The 2014 season will be the New York Football Giants 90th campaign, giving them the fourth-longest tenure in the National Football League. The franchise has won the third-most titles in league history, has the third-largest membership enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and has retired the second-most jersey numbers.

A legacy with such breadth and depth requires an adjustment by the observer to appreciate the men whose shoulders the players and coaches of today stand upon. The timeline of professional football is a continuum of experimentation, change, evolution, and adaptation.

Over that span of time, the franchise has played 1,289 regular- and post-season games with 1,631 players on their active game-day roster. Some might consider the intent of distilling those numbers in a qualitative manner to be sheer absurdity. To do so in a mass manner probably would be.

Identifying and defining specific eras that represent the main epochs the players performed in was the first step. How many times have you heard an announcer describe a current player as being a “throw-back”? Certainly a remark like that is intended to be a compliment, but upon further analysis, what specific attributes make him a “throw-back”? What point in time are you throwing him back to? The 1980’s…1950’s…1920’s? They are all significantly different, and that is where we started.

I say “we” because this admittedly ambitious task proved to be far more than I could absorb on my own. I felt it to be of great importance to be done properly and respectfully. I was quick to reach out for assistance in both research and critical feedback. My underlying theme the entire time was to “be objective without being arbitrary.” The distinct rosters of players and coaches are not simply a reflection of my opinion. I removed and added names in deference to the beliefs of others.

Recognizing the player’s unique talents within the framework of the period they performed in is essential. I do not buy into the belief that players today are superior to the ones prior because they train year round and are allegedly stronger and faster. Most today would not fare well at all in the single-platoon era. The linemen are too heavy and would lack the stamina to play both sides of the ball for at least 45 minutes. The receivers and defensive backs are too small and would not withstand the pounding. The pocket quarterbacks are too immobile to play defense.

I am not saying the players of the early era are better either. The truth is the game has become specialized. Coaches have different philosophies and expectations, rules have changed, and equipment has evolved. All of these variables have influenced what a football player needed to be in his respective time.

Once the periods were defined, the next challenge was deciding who was worthy. The theme that arose numerous times was weighing a steady performance over a lengthy period of time versus a high level of performance in a relatively brief span. The answer to that question is not an easy one. The example that illustrates this best is the careers of Charlie Conerly and Y.A. Tittle. Hence the decision to include the “honorable mention” designation. Of course, this presented a new challenge. While we strove to keep this project as inclusive as possible, we walked a tight rope of mentioning so many other players that the honor would become diminished.

Statistics were taken into account of course, but they are just a reference and not the sole basis for analysis. Passing and receiving records are reset at such a pace today that they are a blur and easy to ignore. Are the passers and receivers that much better than the ones of yesteryear? Of course not. Ed Danowski would have loved to have been able to throw a pass behind a pocket where his linemen were permitted to block with their hands, giving him time to read through his progressions to find a receiver freely roaming through a defense that was bound with restrictions on contact before and after the ball arrived.

Conerly’s season-high of 2,175 passing yards in 1948 is no more or less impressive than Eli Manning’s 4,933 in 2011. At the dawn of the passing era, teams typically had one end who was considered a receiving end while the other was essentially an in-line blocker. There were usually three backs behind the quarterback as well. The passing options were limited, the strategies still primitive, and the rules prohibitive. Teams ran the ball more because that was their best chance for success.

How does one evaluate a player with no measurable numbers in his body of work? One constant remains true in every era: offensive linemen toil in selfless service to their teams. They almost never appear in game write-ups or scoring summaries beyond the listing of the starting lineup. The same is true in yearbooks: little more than a tabulation of game appearances and starts can be expected to be found. In these cases, tenure and team success became the accepted measure. The voices of those closest articulate it best:

It’s the plight of the offensive lineman. He’s expected to pull his weight, do his job and the only time he is noticed is when things go wrong. Let’s face it, linemen just don’t get the ink running backs, quarterbacks and receivers do. (John McVay, former Giants head coach.)

Offensive linemen are the last ones to be recognized, and unfairly too. Star ends and backs don’t mean a darn unless you have the linemen. (Allie Sherman on Darrell Dess.)

It’s important to be there for my teammates and not let anyone down. You want to be part of a group that consistently stays on the field. (Kareem McKenzie when discussing the possible implications of a knee injury.)

In 1925, a statement like that was taken literally. The Giants starting 11 were just that. And the team that took the field for the New York Giants first game in Providence, Rhode Island in October of 1925 looked a lot different than the one that will be on the field in September of 2014.

The 2014 Giants will have 22 starters, 11 for each side of the ball. That number rises even higher when specialists for place kicking, punting, long snapping, and returners are taken into consideration. In the early years, roster size demanded versatility. Players who were singularly-talented in 1925 were a luxury who could not be afforded. The NFL roster in 1925 was 16 players – a contingent that would not even comprise a single platoon in 2014.

Versatility was not the only attribute a player in 1925 needed. Endurance and toughness were equally important. When Benny Friedman threw an interception, he did not walk over to the Giants bench to put on a headset and talk to a coach in the press box. First, there was no such coach to review misreads, coverages, and progressions. Second, he just stepped into the defensive huddle and dropped back to his safety position. His best response was to intercept his counterpart and get the ball back, if they chose to even pass the ball.

The factors influencing this have to do both with rules and equipment. The ball in use at the time had a broad circumference that was far better for drop kicking than passing. A rugby-style underhanded toss gave a more accurate trajectory than an overhand aerial, which was more like a heave of desperation. The rules of the day provided even greater risk. The passer had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage to legally attempt a down-field throw; this usually alerted the defense that a forward pass was coming. A pass out-of-bounds or two successive incompletions resulted in a loss of possession, and an incompletion in the end zone was a touchback. When the offensive team was in an unfavorable position, the accepted strategy of the era was to quick kick or punt the ball away, maintain favorable field position, and wait for the opponent to make a mistake.

Generally speaking, following a change in possession, players would most often line up against the same counterpart. The offensive center was usually the middle guard or linebacker on defense. The offensive guards were the defensive tackles, the offensive tackles were the defensive ends, the fullback was the linebacker, the tailbacks and quarterback were the defensive halfbacks and safeties, and any number of the above would kick or punt.

Wing-style football offered deception and faking in the running game. The tailback was the primary ball handler, while the quarterback, who had the play calling responsibilities, was primarily a blocker. The off tackle slant was the basic play, and the tenet was to get to the point-of-attack and mow the defensive front down. Pass protection was weak due to the unbalanced line and backfield; the tailback often made his throws on the move.

Offensive lines were often unbalanced while defensive lines were spread out wide, usually covering the outside shoulders of the offensive ends. The center could snap the ball to any member of the backfield. Passes were thrown up for grabs in rudimentary fashion while the most complex execution was displayed on end-around runs, reverses, laterals, and spinners.

The style of play was different as players needed to preserve their bodies. Blocking and tackling were done with the shoulders and side body; players avoided pile-ups and rarely launched themselves at the opposition. Enduring the full 60-minute contest was considered a badge of honor. Anyone who asked out of a game risked his reputation among his peers. If a player was taken out of a game for injury, he was ineligible to return until the start of the next quarter. Free substitution, which was not experimented with until World War II, put constraints on rosters and was not adopted full time until 1949.

The NFL followed the college rule book until 1933 and did not distinguish itself until it began to craft its own style. The football itself was gradually streamlined until it reached its current dimensions of 11 inches in length and 21.25 – 21.50 inches in circumference at the center in 1934. The pros first step forward toward innovation was the exploration of the passing offense, while the colleges remained firmly grounded with the run.

While football slowly became more strategically complicated, it remained brutally fundamental. Mass interference at the line of scrimmage remained the favored method of advancing the ball until the early 1950’s. Significant steps to facilitate ball movement and scoring were taken in 1933: goal posts were moved up from the end line to the goal line, hash marks were placed 10 yards in from the sidelines (called “in-bounds lines”), and forward passing was allowed from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Players emerged from the morass and became more visible in the open spaces, occasionally offering hints of technical specialization. The league was divided into two divisions, with the first-place teams meeting to decide the championship.

In 1936, the first organized college draft was held, just in time for the Giants first training camp featuring tackling dummies and blocking sleds. The following year the NFL formed its own rules committee to look for ways to improve the game. Their first major decision was to institute the roughing-the-passer personal foul in 1938. All of this differentiated the professionals (still commonly referred to as “post graduates”) from the colleges, stimulated fan interest, and helped to stabilize league. Franchises folded and relocated far less frequently. Schedules remained unbalanced and unorganized but rosters became more settled. By the close of the 1940’s, rosters had doubled in size to 32, and finally, pro football re-integrated in 1946.

The All-Time New York Giants Team from professional football’s nascent era represented New York as well as any group of players and coaches from any other era. Although they won three world championships, they were not glamorous and many have faded toward obscurity. But that does not diminish their significance nor diminish their importance. These New York Giants played for the simple love of the game more than any generation that has come since.

Single-Wing / Single-Platoon Era (1925 – 1949)
Ward Cuff (14), Tuffy Leemans (4), New York Giants (1939)

Ward Cuff (14), Tuffy Leemans (4), New York Giants (1939)

Head Coach – Steve Owen (1931-53), Left Tackle (1926-31)

  • All-Decade Team 1920’s (Tackle 1926-31)
  • HOF Class of 1966
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro*: 1927

One of the NFL’s best tackles in the 1920’s. Won three championships with the Giants; one as a player in 1927 and two as head coach in 1934 and ’38. Giants all-time leader in coaching victories, his teams won eight NFL Eastern Division titles. Considered a defensive coaching genius of his era. Pioneered early implementation of hybrid linebackers as far back as the 1930’s. Devised the Umbrella Defense in 1950, which included early implementation of zone coverage, to neutralize the Cleveland Browns passing attack. Offensively, created his signature A-Formation that featured an unbalanced line and backfield. “The best offense can be built around ten basic plays. Defense can be built on two. All the rest is razzle-dazzle, egomania and box office.” Owen’s Giants defenses led the NFL in fewest yards allowed six times, fewest points surrendered five times, and most takeaways eight times.

Left End – Red Badgro (1930-35)

  • HOF Class of 1981

Fierce competitor, superior defender, big-play receiver, and an excellent blocker who often lined up against the opposition’s best defender. Scored the first touchdown in an NFL Championship game in 1933 on a 29-yard reception. Tied for most pass receptions in NFL in 1934. Red Grange: “I played with Red one year with the New York Yankees and against him the five seasons he was with the Giants. Playing both offense and defense, he was one of the half-dozen best ends I ever saw.”

Left Tackle – Frank Cope (1938-47)

  • All-Decade Team 1930’s

Consistent performer who was stout on both sides of the line. Driving run blocker and aggressive defender. In 1944, he blocked four punts, all of which were returned for touchdowns.

Honorable Mention – Bill Morgan (1933-36)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1935

Columbia University Head Coach Lou Little said after “The Sneakers Game,” where Morgan was outweighed by an average of 25 pounds by the Bears: “Morgan’s was the greatest exhibition of line play I’ve ever seen. It’s a perfect example of what a one-man rampage can do to a great running attack.” Also cited by Wellington Mara for “perhaps the greatest single game ever played at defensive tackle for us.”

Honorable Mention – Len Grant (1930-37)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1931, ‘32

Started in the first three NFL Championship Games. Team captain in 1936. Strong and agile. Inspirational leader.

Left Guard – John Dell Isola (1934-40), Assistant Coach (1957-59)

Started at center, moved to guard. Great run blocker on offense. Courageous performer in 1938 NFL Championship Game. Vicious linebacker on defense. Instinctive and competitive player. Very physical.

Center – Mel Hein (1931-45)

  • All-Decade Team 1930’s
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • NFL All-Time Two-Way Team
  • HOF Class of 1963
  • NFL MVP 1938
  • #7 retired 1963
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1934, ’35, ’38, ’39, ‘40

One of the finest centers ever to play football. Was also a fantastic middle guard/linebacker who could impact the course of a game. Had the speed to cover ends like Don Hutson while making bone-jarring tackles of power backs such as Bronko Naguski. Had an interception return for a touchdown in a key late-season victory over Green Bay in 1938. The NFL’s version of Lou Gehrig: a true 60-minute player who never left the field during Steve Owens’s two-platoon system. His 15 seasons played have only been matched twice in Giants history. Combined great stamina, mental alertness, and superior athletic ability to become an exceptional star. Giants captain for 10 seasons. Linchpin of the A-Formation’s success. Powerful and intelligent, exceptional at angle blocking defenders. Defensively, had a knack for interceptions, and Owen said Hein was the best tackler he had ever coached.

Right Guard – Len Younce (1941, 1943-44, 1946-48)

  • All-Decade Team 1940’s
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1944

The New York Giants selected Younce in the eighth round of the 1941 NFL Draft. Played six seasons on the offensive line, helping the team reach the NFL Title game three times. Strong run blocker. Also played linebacker, and handled punting and placekicking duties at times. Set the Giants record for longest punt with a 74-yard effort in 1943 which lasted 58 years. Returned an interception for a touchdown versus the Steagles in 1943, led the league in punting yards in 1944, and made 36-of-37 extra-point attempts in 1948. Finished his career with 10 interceptions.

Right Tackle – Al Blozis (1942-44)

  • All-Decade Team 1940’s
  • #32 retired 1945
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1943

Considered to be on his way to becoming an all-time great before being killed in WWII, possibly a Pro Football HOF talent. Possessed tremendous strength and athleticism. As a rookie in 1942, had a one-handed sack of Sammy Baugh. Coach Steve Owen told Wellington Mara, “He’ll be the best tackle who ever put on a pair of shoes.” Hein, who played alongside Blozis on offense and behind him on defense, said, “If he hadn’t been killed, he could have been the greatest tackle who ever played football. I felt comfortable having him next to me. He was real strong and real fast. He made tackles all over the field. He was good his first year; the second year he was great.”

Honorable Mention – Cal Hubbard (1927-28, 1936)

  • HOF Class of 1963
  • All-Decade Team 1920’s
  • NFL All-Time Two-Way Team
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1927

A stalwart of the 1920’s era. Key member of the 1927 Giants who outscored their opposition 177-20. 6’5”, 250 pounds, ran the 100-yard dash in 11 seconds. Powerful blocker, destroyed opposing lines. Sometimes used on tackle-eligible pass plays. Given pursuit responsibility on defense. Steve Owen said, “He was fast and hit like a sledgehammer.”

Right End – Ray Flaherty (1928-29, 1931-35), Player/Assistant Coach (1935)

  • HOF Class of 1976
  • #1 retired 1935
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1929, ‘32

The Giants first team captain. Led the NFL in receptions, yards, and touchdown receptions in 1932, the first year statistics were officially recorded. Had very good speed and made big plays. An excellent defensive player. Suggested the Giants switch to sneakers during the 1934 NFL Championship Game. Served double-duty as player/coach for two games during the 1933 preseason while Steve Owen tended to his wife with a terminal illness, and was a player/coach for the full 1935 season.

Honorable Mention- Jim Poole (1937-41, 1945-46)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1939, ‘46

Large player for his era. Crashing end on defense and strong blocker on offense. Reliable receiver. Blocked two punts in the 1938 NFL Championship Game. Led Giants in receptions in 1946. Cited by Steve Owen as one of the best the Giants ever had.

Tailback – Ed Danowski (1934-41)

  • First-Team All-Pro 1935, ‘38

Led the NFL in passing yards and efficiency in 1935. Had the best touchdown-interception ratio of his era, was also a consistent rusher and was a good punter. Won two NFL Championships as starting tailback. Passed and ran for touchdowns in 1934 NFL Championship Game versus Chicago in 1934. Threw winning touchdown in NFL Championship Game versus Green Bay in 1938. Has the longest Giants punt in a post-season contest.

Honorable Mention – Benny Friedman (1929-31)

  • HOF Class of 2005
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1929, ‘30

The NFL’s first great passer of the 1920’s. Helped to attract the public’s attention to the pro game with his passing highlights featured in newsreels. Also a premier ball-carrier who ran with power. The Giants scored 312 points in 1929 (no other team even scored 200) with Friedman setting an NFL record with 20 touchdown passes. He also rushed for two touchdowns and led the NFL in point-after-touchdowns. Intelligent player/coach. Was in line to become the Giants head coach in 1932 but left the team following a contract dispute.

Halfback/Wingback – Ken Strong (1933-39, 1944-47), Assistant Coach (1940, 1961-65)

  • All-Decade Team 1930’s
  • HOF Class of 1967
  • #50 retired 1947
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1933

One of the most versatile players of his era: triple-threat rusher, receiver, and passer from the backfield. Place kicked and punted. Vicious blocker – considered one of the best of his era. Also one of the best defensive players of his era. Accurate straight-ahead kicker. Scored 17 points, an NFL Championship Game record that stood for almost 30 years, including two fourth-quarter touchdowns in the 1934 NFL Championship Game versus the undefeated Bears. Returned to Giants as place-kicking specialist in 1940’s. Served as kicking coach after playing career ended. Led the NFL in scoring in 1933 and retired as the Giants all-time scoring leader. Has the Giants longest punt return in a post-season game. Also scored on a 42-yard touchdown reception from Ed Danowski in the 1935 NFL Championship Game. Retired as the NFL’s all-time leading scorer.

Honorable Mention – Ward Cuff (1937-45)

  • #14 retired 1946

Never missed a game in 15 years. His 170 regular-season games still ranks 10th all-time for the Giants. Also played in eight championship games and one divisional playoff. Multi-positional player: halfback, wingback, defensive halfback. Also punted and place kicked. Led second-half effort in Giants 1938 NFL Championship Game. Led the Giants in receiving yards twice, the NFL in field goals three times, and the NFL in PAT’s once. Scored on a then-team record 96-yard interception return in season-finale versus Washington in 1938. Solid blocker as a wing back, fast enough to run a reverse, excellent coverman on defense. Exceptional straight-ahead kicker who left the team as New York’s all-time leading scorer.

Fullback – Tuffy Leemans (1936-43), Assistant Coach (1943-44), Player/Assistant Coach (1943), Assistant Coach (1944)

  • All-Decade Team 1930’s
  • HOF Class of 1978
  • #4 retired 1943
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1939

Led the NFL in rushing in 1936. Threw 25 TD passes over career during regular season, one in 1939 NFL Championship Game. Retired as the Giants career rushing leader in 1943. Scored a touchdown in 1938 NFL Championship Game versus Green Bay. Steady defensive player. Commissioner Bert Bell: “Leemans makes all tacklers look bad.” Fierce competitor, played through injuries. Known by fans as “Mr. Giant.” Strong short-yardage back with break-away speed. Also lead the Giants in passing as the A-Formation tailback in 1941 and 1942.

Honorable Mention – Hank Soar (1937-44, 1946)

Multi-position player on offense; outstanding defensive halfback and safety. One of Steve Owen’s favorite players. Called the Giants defenses, which led the NFL in fewest points allowed four times during his career. Scored the winning touchdown in the 1938 NFL Championship Game. Led Giants in rushing in 1937.

Blocking Back/Quarterback – Dale Burnett (1930-39)

Versatile offensive player with speed and agility. Blocked and handled the ball well. Owen cited Burnett as one of the best pass catching players of his era. Very good in coverage on defense. Returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown (a team record at the time) in a late-season win versus Green Bay in 1933. At the time of his retirement, his 86 receptions and 25 touchdowns scored were franchise records.


Leather helmets, the Single Wing, and six-man defensive lines were relegated obsolete by the middle of professional football’s most romanticized decade – the 1950’s. Pocket protection, men-in-motion, and coordinated defenses attracted a new, more analytical audience. Nevertheless, the game was still as physical as ever as the NFL signed its first network television contract with DuMont in 1953.

In 1951, interior linemen were no longer permitted to run interference downfield on pass plays. Offensive strategies calibrated their timing and exploited space as they attacked further away from the line of scrimmage. Defenses responded by emphasizing athleticism over brute force. In 1954, all players entering the league were required to wear facemasks, even if some of them were Lucite.

Schedules were better organized as teams played a set 12-game schedule that featured round robins within their respective conference and rotations with half the teams in the other conference. As the league prospered, player salaries gradually increased. Coaches deepened preparation with film study, scouting, and staffs that now had coordinators and position coaches. The players unionized with the formation of the NFL Players Association in 1956.

The 1960’s was a decade of expansion. New teams joined the NFL as it competed with the new AFL. A league-wide television deal was finalized in 1961 ensuring that every game would be broadcast. That same season, the 14-game schedule was introduced. In 1965, the game-day officiating crew increased from five to six when the Line Judge was added.

By the end of the decade, defenses gained the advantage over complex offenses by employing more involved strategies of their own – lateral movement, play recognition, and zone coverages were a part of every defensive scheme. For the first time in three decades, scoring was on the decline.

Part of the reason for a decrease in offensive touchdowns was a quantum leap in the quality of place kicking. The new breed of soccer-style kicking had an immediate impact on the game. In 1968, the NFL experimented during the preseason by not allowing teams to kick the point-after-touchdown during inter-league NFL-AFL matchups. Instead, teams had to run a play from scrimmage.

Following the AFL-NFL merger, two waves of drastic changes to tip the advantage back to the offense were implemented by the rules committee. The first came in 1974. Kickoffs were moved back from the 40-yard line to the 35-yard line and the goal posts were moved back from the goal line to the end line. The penalty for offensive holding was reduced from 15 yards to 10 yards. Also, a 15-minute overtime period was added to regular season games, making the anti-climactic tie games a rarity. Rosters grew past the 40-player plateau and reached 43 by 1977. The age of specialization was dawning.

The New York Giants who played during this era may have only claimed one world championship of their own, but they were just as talented as the players from the other two eras. They grew with the times and gained their own unique recognition as professional football ascended to the forefront of public consciousness. There are more Giant players and coaches enshrined in Canton from this era than any other.

Pro T / Two-Platoon Era (1950 – 1977)
Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), Alex Webster (29), New York Giants (November 13, 1955)

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), Alex Webster (29), New York Giants (November 13, 1955)

Head Coach – Jim Lee Howell (1954-60), Right End (1937-42, 1946-47), Assistant Coach (1949-53)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Played end and coached ends under Steve Owen. Blocked a punt in the 1938 NFL Championship Game. As head coach, led the Giants to three Eastern Conference titles and the 1956 NFL Championship. Never had losing season as head coach. Was the first head coach to explicitly delegate authority to offensive and defensive coordinators, which gave rise to the modern coaching staff.

Offensive Coordinator – Vince Lombardi (1954-58)

  • Pro Football HOF Class of 1971

Implemented modern T-Formation offense with the Giants. Made the sweep his signature play. Helped make stars of Roosevelt Brown and Frank Gifford. The Giants ranked in the top three in the NFL for fewest turnovers in four of his five seasons as coordinator.

Defensive Coordinator – Tom Landry (1956-59), Defensive Halfback/Punter (1950-55), Player/Assistant Coach (1951-53), Player/Defensive Coordinator (1954-55)

  • Pro Football HOF Class of 1990
  • First-Team All-Pro 1954

Intelligent player, sure tackler. Served as player/coach and quasi-coordinator under Steve Owen. Revolutionized how defensive football is understood and coached. Emphasized charting tendencies and reading keys. Holds Giants record with an interception in seven consecutive games. The first Giant to return interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games. Was an excellent punter and occasionally played as T-Formation quarterback. Returned punts and kickoffs. Owen called him “the quarterback” of the defense. The Giants defense led the NFL in fewest yards allowed 1956 and 1959 and the fewest points surrendered in 1958 and 1959. The 1954 Giants defense led the NFL in takeaways.

Split End – Del Shofner (1961-67)

  • All-Decade Team 1960’s
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1961, ’62, ‘63

The Giants first 1,000-yard receiver. Holds team record with 269 receiving yards in a game. Second highest yards-per-reception in team history (18.1) for a player with over 150 catches. Had four games where he scored three touchdowns, a team record. 13 career 100-yard receiving games.

Honorable Mention – Homer Jones (1964-69)

NFL’s all-time leader in yards-per-reception (22.3). Holds team record with 13 touchdown catches in a season. Fifth all-time for Giants in receiving yards and touchdowns. Led the NFL with 13 touchdowns in 1967. 10 touchdowns of 70 or more yards are the most in Giants history. Seventeen 100-yard receiving games second most in team history.

Left Tackle – Roosevelt Brown (1953-65), Assistant Coach (1967-70), Scout (1971-2003)

  • HOF Class of 1975
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1956, ’57, ’58, ’59, ’61, ‘62

Starting left tackle for 13 consecutive seasons. Played in nine Pro Bowls. Tremendously strong drive blocker with the speed and athleticism to run interference downfield and on sweeps. Played defense in short yardage and on the goal line. Was only the second modern era offensive lineman enshrined in the Pro Football HOF.

Honorable Mention – Willie Young (1966-75)

Came to Giants as a defensive tackle, switched to offense during second season. Somewhat undersized but strong, quick, and athletic. Appeared in 135 games.

Left Guard – Darrell Dess (1959-64, 1966-69)

Excellent pass blocker who was adept at pulling to lead sweeps. Smart and efficient player who was able to block and control larger defensive opponents. Played in 120 games.

Honorable Mention – Bill Austin (1949-50, 1953-57), Assistant Coach (1979-82)

Appeared in 75 games. Began as a two-way player before being permanently entrenched at offensive guard. Was a key component in the Giants Power-T formation in the mid 1950’s pulling on sweeps. Started in the 1956 NFL Championship Game.

Center – Greg Larson (1961-73)

Versatile – started at tackle and guard before moving to center. Tough player who led by example. Returned from a severe knee injury in 1964 and played in the 1966 Pro Bowl. Played in 179 games.

Honorable Mention – Ray Wietecha (1953-62)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1958

Retired with Giants team record 133 consecutive games played. Quick and aggressive. Referred to by Allie Sherman as “the quarterback up front.” Made the challenging transition from A-Formation center to T-Formation center.

Right Guard – Doug Van Horn (1968-79)

Steady performer at multiple positions. Giants team captain in 1976. Great technician who used quickness and footwork to redirect opponents. Played in 172 games with 169 starts.

Right Tackle – Jack Stroud (1953-64)

Tough, multi-position performer. Played through injury and was respected by both teammates and opponents. Athletic, excelled as a pass-blocking tackle and pulling guard on sweeps. Was the Giants offensive captain. Appeared in 132 games.

Tight End – Bob Tucker (1970-77)

Led the NFC in receptions 1971. Sure-handed receiver. John Mara: “Bob was revolutionary for his time.” Was a very reliable performer despite playing with numerous quarterbacks throughout his career. Had five 100-yard receiving games.

Flanker – Kyle Rote (1951-61)

Giants team captain. Adept at underneath routes to covert third downs. Started as a halfback, but knee injury necessitated change of position after rookie season. Combined power, polish, and determination in all his roles. Franchise touchdown-receiving record stood for 47 years.

Honorable Mention – Joe Morrison (1959-72)

  • #40 retired 1972
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Played six different positions over 14 years with the Giants, including defensive back. Retired as the team franchise leader in receptions and receiving yards. Holds team record with touchdown receptions in seven consecutive games. As a receiver, third all-time team leader in catches, fourth in yards, and third in touchdowns.

Halfback – Frank Gifford (1952-60, 1962-64)

  • HOF Class of 1977
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • NFL MVP 1956
  • #16 retired 2000
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1955, ’56, ’57, ’59

One of the most versatile athletes ever to wear a uniform. The only player in NFL history to play in the Pro Bowl on offense and defense, and at three different positions: defensive halfback, halfback, and flanker. Retired as the Giants all-time leader in all-purpose yards. Scored the most touchdowns in Giants history (34 rushing, 43 receiving, one interception return). Also threw 14 touchdown passes, kicked 10 point-afters, and two field goals. Scored touchdowns in three NFL Championship Games. Holds team record for touchdowns in 10 consecutive games. Led the NFL in all-purpose yards in 1956 and retired with team record 9,862 all-purpose yards.

Fullback – Alex Webster (1955-64), Assistant Coach (1967-68), Head Coach (1969-73)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2011

Inspirational leader who often played through injury. Great runner who became a reliable blocker and receiver. Retired as the Giants all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns (still ranks fifth in both). Scored two touchdowns in the 1956 NFL Championship Game versus the Chicago Bears. Retired as the Giants third all-time leading receiver in catches, fourth in yards, and fifth in touchdowns.

Quarterback – Charlie Conerly (1948-61)

  • #42 retired 1962
  • NFL MVP 1959
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Retired with all Giants major passing records. Started as tailback in A-Formation. Set NFL record for passing touchdowns for a rookie in 1948 – a record which stood until 1998. Quietly tough, led by example. The Giants leading passer for 12 consecutive seasons. At the time of his retirement, his 14 years of service were second only to Mel Hein’s 15. His single-season records of touchdowns passing and yards passing stood until Y.A. Tittle broke them. Threw two touchdown passes in the 1956 NFL Championship Game and rushed for the game’s only touchdown in the 1958 Eastern Conference Playoff versus Cleveland.

Honorable Mention – Y.A. Tittle (1961-64)

  • HOF Class of 1971
  • #14 retired 1965
  • NFL MVP 1961, ‘63
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1962,’63

The quality of his quarterbacking over a three-year span has never been surpassed in team history at a time when his career was thought to be finished. Set the NFL single-season passing touchdown record in 1962 and surpassed it in 1963, a record that lasted until 1984. Led the Giants to three consecutive Eastern Conference titles. Set Giants record for passing yards in a season in 1962, which lasted until 1984. Exuberant leader. His 18 games with three touchdown passes were a team high at the time of his retirement. Was the first Giant to achieve a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in 1963.

Weakside End – Andy Robustelli (1956-64), General Manager (1974-78)

  • HOF class of 1971
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1956, ’58, ’59, ‘60

Leader of the Giants defenses of the late 1950’s and early ’60’s. Masterful pass rusher with a variety of moves. Saved his best for big plays near the end of games. Unofficially had 79 career sacks. Served as player/coach in 1962-64. Supplied the entire Giants team with sneakers for the 1956 NFL Championship Game.

Defensive Tackle – Arnie Weinmeister (1950-53)

  • HOF Class of 1984
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1950, ’51, ’52, ‘53

Combined speed, power, and a relentless desire to become one of the most disruptive players from the defensive tackle position in history. One of the first defensive players to cultivate fan interest and gain notoriety. Keen instincts, diagnosed plays at the snap. Sometimes unstoppable interior pass rusher. Talents allowed Steve Owen to drop ends into coverage in the Umbrella Defense.

Honorable Mention – Dick Modzelewski (1956-63)

Stabilizing force in the middle of the defense. Strong and smart, covered multiple gaps. Steady performer who excelled in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Defensive Tackle – John Mendenhall (1972-79)

Stout run defender who also provided consistent interior pass rush. Unofficially had 39.5 career sacks, including 11 in 1974 and 10 in 1977. Harry Carson: “He made me look good. He was hard to block, he was very quick. We played off each other.”

Honorable Mention – Roosevelt Grier (1955-56, 1958-62)

  • First-Team All-Pro 1956

One of the first large tackles, out-weighing most offensive linemen. Physically became the prototype. Sometimes an inconsistent performer, but on his good days was among the best of his era and would wreak havoc on the opposition.

Strongside End – Jim Katcavage (1956-68)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1961, ‘63

Physical player – the perfect book end for counterpart Andy Robustelli. Penetrated the line and redirected plays back inside. Has the most defensive fumbles recovered in Giants history and the most safeties with three (the latter also an NFL record). Unofficially had a 7-sack game and 96.5 over his career.

Weakside Linebacker – Harland Svare (1955-60), Defensive Coordinator (1961, 1967-68)

Tough, quick, aggressive, smart. Served as player/coach in 1960.

Middle Linebacker – Sam Huff (1956-63)

  • HOF Class of 1982
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1958, ‘59

Anchored the Giants great defenses that won six Eastern Conference titles and the NFL Championship in 1956. Elevated the stature of defensive players in fan consciousness with one-on-one confrontations with Jim Brown and Jim Taylor. Was the prototypical middle linebacker in Tom Landry’s intricate defense. Took full advantage of every opportunity the opposition allowed him. Powerful run stuffer. Also provided good coverage skills evidenced by 18 interceptions. Scored four return touchdowns (two interceptions and two fumbles).

Strongside Linebacker – Brad Van Pelt (1973-83)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2011

Excelled in pass coverage, had 18 career interceptions. Played in five Pro Bowls and was named Giants Player of the Decade of the 1970’s. Also played on special teams throughout entire career.

Cornerback – Erich Barnes (1961-64)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1961

Aggressive, physical player and a good athlete. Occasionally played split end on offense – caught a 62-yard touchdown pass from Y.A. Tittle in 1961. Has the longest touchdown in franchise history – a 102-yard interception return in 1961 (which at the time tied the NFL record.)

Cornerback – Dick Lynch (1959-66)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1963

Savvy player. A strong tackler in run support. Excelled in man-to-man coverage. Led the NFL in interceptions twice. Tied for first with most interception returns for touchdowns in Giants history, including team-record three in a single season. Had three games with three interceptions.

Weakside Safety – Emlen Tunnell (1948-59), Scout (1962, 1974-75), Assistant Coach (1963-1973)

  • HOF Class of 1967
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1951, ’52, ’55, ‘56

The Giants first African-American player. Retired as the NFL’s career-leader in interceptions. Tied for first with most interception returns for touchdowns. In 1952, he had more return yardage on punts and interceptions than the NFL’s rushing leader. Incredible ball instincts, soft hands, fluid moves. Played offense as well in first two seasons. A key to the Umbrella Defense’s success. Was the only defender permitted to freelance through zones. Sure tackler. The first full-time African-American scout and assistant coach in pro football. The first African-American enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in interceptions and interception yards.

Honorable Mention – Carl “Spider” Lockhart (1965-75)

Hard hitter and sure tackler despite lack of size. One of only three Giants to return interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games. Third in Giants history in career interceptions and second in defensive fumbles recovered. Also returned punts.

Strongside Safety – Jimmy Patton (1955-66)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1958, ’59, ’60, ’61, ‘62

A stalwart of the Giants secondary. Consistently solid and occasionally spectacular performer. Second in team history with 52 career interceptions, and tied for first with 11 in a single season in 1958, which led the NFL. Fearless player and strong tackler despite lack of size. First player in NFL history to return a punt and kick for a touchdown in a game in 1955.

Place Kicker – Pete Gogolak (1966-74)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Professional football’s first soccer-style kicker. The first player to jump from the AFL to the NFL. The Giants all-time leader in field goals, extra points, and total points scored.

Punter – Don Chandler (1956-64)

  • All-Decade Team 1960’s

Solid punter who performed at his best in crucial situations. Also doubled as place kicker later in his career. Led the NFL in punting in 1958. Holds the Giants top two spots for highest punting average in post-season contests.

Kick Returner – Clarence Childs (1964-67)

Giants all-time leader in kickoff return yardage. One of only three Giants to return two for touchdowns. His 987 yards returned in 1964 remained a team record for 39 seasons. His 100-yard return in 1964 remains tied as the longest in franchise history.

Punt Returner – Emlen Tunnell** (1948-59)

Scored 10 return touchdowns with the Giants: five punts, four interceptions, and a kickoff. Retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in punt returns and punt return yards. Second in Giants history with five punt returns for touchdowns. Was a master at faking the oncoming tackler into a move then sliding into the opening with a fluid side-step.

** Appears on team more than once.


The second wave of rule changes designed to liberate the passing offense and increase scoring took place in 1978; the same season the NFL went to a 16-game schedule, added a second Wild Card team to the post-season tournament, and bolstered rosters to 45 players.

The 5-yard bump rule was imposed on defensive players. Double touching of a forward pass by the offensive team became legal. Offensive linemen could now block with extended arms and open hands. The intentional grounding penalty was reduced from 15 yards to 10. Also, the Line Judge was added as the game-day seventh official. Enter the era of the frustrated defense.

It did not take long for the impact of these rules to achieve their desired impact: rushing attempts fell from 58% in 1977 to 56% in 1978 to 52% in 1979 to 49% in 1980. The NFL has remained a pass-first league ever since.

From 1982 through 1984, the game-day roster size increased to a high of 49 players, then dropped to 45, where it has remained. The larger rosters allowed players who were less well-rounded but more highly specialized to carve out niches for themselves on teams that valued their distinctive skill sets.

At one time there was little difference between a left end and right end on offense or between a safety and a halfback on defense. Today a team will stock a roster three deep at the tight end position alone: one who is an in-line blocker, one who flexes out as a receiver, and one who moves as an H-Back. Defensively, corners are now desired by the scheme they fit (man-on-man or zone coverage), with tackling ability possibly a secondary concern. The same is true of safeties; some play close to the line of scrimmage as a hybrid linebacker, some fill in a slot corner role. Linebackers are touted as 3-down players if they have multiple skills. Some offensive backs only play on third down. Since the advent of full free agency in 1993, players have had the opportunity to select the best fit for their careers, whether it is suitable for their talent or simply financial remuneration.

This current group of Giants players has won half of the franchise’s eight world championships. Some are still active and have not completed their stories. Few will spend their career with a single team, as they follow the current of the open market when they reach free agency. This is an echo from professional football’s earliest era when 60-minute players would sign game-to-game contracts as a supplementary income to their full-time jobs.

Post-Modern Era (1978 – 2013)
Leonard Marshall (70), Harry Carson (53), New York Giants (September 21, 1986)

Leonard Marshall (70), Harry Carson (53), New York Giants (September 21, 1986)

Head Coach – Bill Parcells (1983-90), Assistant Coach (1981-82)

  • HOF Class of 2013
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Joined Giants staff as linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Coached Lawrence Taylor as a rookie to All-Pro status. Culminated the revival of the struggling Giants franchise with their first league title in 30 years as head coach in 1986. That team’s 14 regular-season and 17 total wins stand as franchise single-season highs. Led the Giants to another NFL title in 1990. His eight career post-season wins are tied for first in Giants history.

Honorable Mention – Tom Coughlin (2004-present), Offensive Assistant Coach (1988-90)

Won three Super Bowls as member of Giants, first as receivers coach under Bill Parcells from 1988-90, then head coach in 2007 and 2011. Won at #1 and #2 NFC seeds in both post-seasons and defeated #1 AFC seed in both Super Bowls. Eight post-season wins tied for first in Giants history.

Offensive Coordinator – Ron Erhardt (1982-92)

Architect of versatile Giants offense that won two Super Bowls with two different quarterbacks and two different offensive lines that emphasized different blocking styles. Three times his offense was ranked in the top three for fewest turnovers.

Honorable Mention – Kevin Gilbride (2004-13)

Quarterbacks coach who assumed offensive coordinator position late in 2006 season. Offense led NFL in rushing in 2008, and featured two 1,000-yard backs for only the fourth time in NFL history. The 2007 Giants were fourth in the NFL in rushing while the 2011 Giants were fifth in the NFL in passing. Three performances in the 2011 post-season rank in the top six in franchise history in terms of single-game offensive yardage output.

Defensive Coordinator – Bill Belichick (1985-90), Defensive/Special Teams Assistant Coach (1979-84)

Began his career as special teams coach under Ray Perkins. Coached linebackers under Bill Parcells and took over defensive coordinator responsibilities in 1985. The 1989 Giants were second in the NFL in points allowed and the 1990 Giants were first in that category.

X Receiver – Amani Toomer (1996-2008)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

The Giants all-time leading receiver in catches, yards, and touchdowns for both the regular- and post-seasons. Holds the Giant regular-season record for most 100-yard receiving games. Has the second-most punt returns for touchdowns. Giants second-leading scorer in the post-season (leading non-kicker). Twenty-two 100-yard receiving games most in Giants history.

Honorable Mention – Plaxico Burress (2005-08)

Holds franchise record for most receptions in a post-season game. Had 12 touchdown catches in 2007 and caught the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII.

Left Tackle – John “Jumbo” Elliott (1988-95)

Powerful, aggressive player and dominant run blocker despite battling back problems for much of his career. Appeared in 112 regular-season games with 98 starts; started in four post-season games including Super Bowl XXV. Received the Giants first ever “Franchise Player” designation in 1993.

Honorable Mention – David Diehl (2003-13)

Starting left tackle in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. Durable, started 120 consecutive games from 2003-2010. Started at all line positions except center.

Left Guard – Rich Seubert (2001-10)

One of the toughest players ever to wear a Giants uniform. Earned a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in 2001. Suffered a serious leg injury in 2003, but rehabilitated and returned in 2005. Started all four post-season games in 2007.

Honorable Mention – William Roberts – (1984-94)

Played multiple positions. After missing the 1985 season with a knee injury, became a fixture at left guard beginning in 1987. Often played left tackle when Elliot struggled with back problems. Appeared as a reserve in Super Bowl XXI; started in Super Bowl XXV.

Center – Bart Oates (1985-93)

Played in 140 regular-season games and started 11 in the post-season, including Super Bowls XXI and XXV. The Giants had a 1,000-yard rusher in eight of his nine seasons.

Honorable Mention – Shaun O’Hara (2004-10)

Started 97 regular-season games and games six in the post-season, including Super Bowl XLII.

Right Guard – Chris Snee (2004-13)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 2008

One of the Giants most reliable linemen. Has started 141 regular-season games, plus 11 post-season games including Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

Honorable Mention – Ron Stone (1996-2001)

Primary starter all six seasons, including all three games in the 2000 post-season. Powerful run blocker.

Right Tackle – Kareem McKenzie (2005-11)

Started 105 regular-season games and 11 post-season games, including Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

Honorable Mention – Doug Reisenberg (1987-95)

Played in 135 regular-season games with 122 starts, plus six post-season games including Super Bowl XXV.

Tight End – Mark Bavaro (1985-90)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2011
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1986, ‘87

Most 100-yard receiving games for a tight end in Giants history. Only Giants tight end to gain 1,000 yards in a season. Great in-line blocker. Scored go-ahead touchdown in third quarter of Super Bowl XXI. Nine 100-yards receiving games most for a tight end in franchise history.

Honorable Mention – Jeremy Shockey (2002-07)

  • First-Team All-Pro 2002

Eight 100-yard receiving games. Had a club high six 10-reception games.

Z Receiver – Victor Cruz (2010-present)

Holds Giants record for most receiving yards in a season with 1,536 in 2011. Seven touchdowns of 70 or more yards; second most in team history. Sixteen 100-yard receiving games third most in franchise history.

Halfback – Tiki Barber (1997-2006)

  • First-Team All-Pro 2005
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Giants career rushing leader. Holds single-season records for most yards rushing, all-purpose yards, and receptions for a back. Had a club record thirty-eight 100-yard rushing games – including five 200-yard games which is tied for second most in NFL history. An excellent receiver, had three 10-reception games.

Honorable Mention – Rodney Hampton (1990-97)

Retired as Giants career-rushing leader. Holds team record for most rushing touchdowns in a game with four. Tied for the franchise record for most rushing yards in a post-season game and longest touchdown run in a post-season game. Had seventeen 100-yard rushing games and five consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

Fullback – Maurice Carthon (1985-92)

Lead blocker for three different 1,000-yard rushers.

Honorable Mention – Charles Way (1995-99)

In 1997, became most recent fullback to lead the Giants in rushing yards; also second on the team in receptions that season.

Quarterback – Eli Manning (2004-present)

Giants all-time leader in pass completions, passing yards, and touchdowns thrown in both the regular-season and post-season. NFL’s third all-time in consecutive games played. Has the most 300-yard passing games (38) and 400-yard passing games (4) in Giants history, plus one 500-yard passing game. His 30 games with three touchdown passes are a club record. MVP of Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. Eight post-season victories are the most in franchise history. Holds the team mark with six games with 30 or more pass completions.

Honorable Mention – Phil Simms (1979-93)

  • #11 retired 1995
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

MVP of Super Bowl XXI, his 88.0% completion percentage (22-for-25) is second all-time in NFL post-season history. Retired with all Giants passing records and most post-season victories. His 15 seasons played are tied with Mel Hein’s team record. The first Giant to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. Had 21 career 300-yard passing games, two 400-yard passing games, and his 513 yards are the franchise record for passing yards in a game. His 18 games with three touchdown passes are tied for second in team history. Set the club record with 40 pass completions in a game in 1985.

Weakside/Right Defensive End – Leonard Marshall (1983-92)

Officially has the franchise’s third-most career sacks (since 1982.) Led team in sacks twice. Second most post-season sacks in Giants history. Had two sacks in Super Bowl XXI and one in Super Bowl XXV. One of only two players in franchise history to record more than one safety. Had five career three-sack games.

Honorable Mention – Osi Umenyiora (2003-12)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 2005

Led or tied for the team lead in sacks six times. Holds team record with six sacks in a game. Had 5.5 sacks in the post-season. Tied an NFL record by blocking two punts in a game in 2003.

Defensive Tackle – Keith Hamilton (1992-2003)

Began career as strongside end in the 3-4; moved to tackle in the 4-3 and started at both interior positions. Was stout against the run but also provided interior pocket pressure. Led the Giants in sacks three times. Compiled 63 sacks and 14 fumble recoveries during his career and also registered a safety.

Nose Tackle Tackle – Jim Burt (1981-88)

Anchored a 3-4 line. Had two sacks in the 1985 Wild Card Playoff. Tough player who battled chronic back issues most of his career. Led Giants down linemen in tackles in 1984 and 1986.

Honorable Mention – Erik Howard (1986-94)

Forced Roger Craig fumble in waning moments of 1990 NFC Championship Game. Led Giants down linemen in tackles in the 1989 and 1990 regular-seasons and had the most tackles in the 1990 post-season.

Strongside/Left Defensive End – Michael Strahan (1993-2007)

  • HOF Class of 2014
  • All-Decade Team 2000’s
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1997, ’98, ’01, ‘03

His 15 seasons played matched Mel Hein and Phil Simms franchise record. Most games played as a Giant. Has the fifth-most sacks in NFL history, most in a single season, and second-most in Giants history (unofficially). Held the edge against the run as well as he rushed the passer. Led the NFL in sacks twice and the Giants seven times. Had seven games with at least three sacks. Most post-season sacks in Giants history.

Honorable Mention – George Martin (1975-88)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Retired with the most touchdowns scored as a defensive lineman in NFL history. Unofficially has 96 career sacks. Also caught a touchdown pass as a tight end. Scored a safety in Super Bowl XXI.

Honorable Mention – Justin Tuck (2005-13)

  • First Team All-Pro 2008

Had 60.5 sacks in the regular season and 5.5 in the post season. Two sacks each in super Bowls XLII and XLVI with a forced fumble and forced safety. A strong two-way defender who held the edge against the run while totaling four seasons with double-digit sack totals.

Strongside/Left Outside Linebacker – Carl Banks (1984-92)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2011
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1987

Led the Giants in tackles in 1986 and 1987. Had two 10-tackle games in the 1986 post-season, including Super Bowl XXI. Led the defense with seven forced fumbles in 1989. Excellent in coverage, led Giants in passes defensed in 1991.

Inside Linebacker – Pepper Johnson (1986-92)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1990

Led the Giants in tackles in 1990. Played a critical role in Bill Belichick’s “Big Nickel” defense in Super Bowl XXV – was on the field almost every snap. Had 14 tackles in the 1990 post-season while also playing special teams. Led the defense in tackles 1990-1992. Set a then-team record with 4.5 sacks in a game in 1992. Returned interceptions for touchdowns in 1988 and 1989.

Honorable Mention – Gary Reasons (1984-92)

Excellent in pass coverage. Had 30-yard rush on 4th quarter fake punt in 1990 NFC Championship Game. Led the Giants in fumble recoveries in 1990 and led the defense with six tackles in Super Bowl XXV. Intercepted 10 passes and recovered nine fumbles during his career.

Middle/Inside Linebacker – Harry Carson (1976-88)

  • HOF Class of 2006
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Was a 13-year starter and 9-time Pro Bowler at two positions: middle linebacker in the 4-3 and inside linebacker in the 3-4. Had 20 solo tackles in a 1982 game vs Green Bay. Stout run defender who also intercepted 11 passes and recorded 17 sacks. Returned an interception for a touchdown in the 1984 NFC Divisional playoffs.

Weakside/Right Outside Linebacker – Lawrence Taylor (1981-93)

  • HOF Class of 1999
  • All-Decade Team 1980’s
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • NFL MVP 1986
  • #56 retired 1994
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1981, ’82, ’83, ’84, ’85’, ’86, ’88, ’89

The most decorated player in Giants history. Retired with the second-most sacks in NFL history. Revolutionized the way outside linebacker is played. One of the most disruptive defensive players in NFL history. Had 12 games with at least three sacks. Played in the most post-season contests in franchise history.

Honorable Mention – Jessie Armstead (1993-2001)

  • Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1997

Made the Giants as a special teams player and became a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker. Led the team in tackles three consecutive seasons 1996-1998; led the Giants in sacks in 1999.

Cornerback – Mark Collins (1986-93)

Led the Giants in interceptions twice. Led secondary in tackles in 1991. Sure tackler, strong in run support.

Honorable Mention – Corey Webster (2006-13)

Intercepted pass in overtime of 2007 NFC Championship Game to set up game-winning field goal. Defensed desperation pass to preserve win in Super Bowl XLII.

Cornerback – Mark Haynes (1980-85)

  • First-Team All-Pro 1982, ‘84

Recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the 1981 Wild Card Playoff at Philadelphia. Led the Giants with seven interceptions in 1984.

Honorable Mention – Jason Sehorn (1994-2002)

Tied with most interceptions returned for touchdowns in Giants history. Also returned an onsides kickoff for a touchdown. Led Giants in interceptions three times and has the most post-season interceptions in team history.

Free Safety – Antrel Rolle (2009-present)

A versatile playmaker who has played both safety positions and also slot corner. Led the Giants in tackles in 2011. His six interceptions in 2013 were a team high.

Honorable Mention – Terry Kinard (1983-89)

One of only four Giants to record three interceptions in a game. A hard hitter and exceptional tackler. Led the Giants secondary in tackles in 1984 and 1985 and interceptions in 1986 and 1989. Scored touchdowns on two interception returns.

Strong Safety – Greg Jackson (1989-93)

Strong run defender who made a lot of tackles. Led the defense in interceptions in 1992 and 1993, totaling 14 during his career.

Long Snapper – Zak DeOssie (2007-present)

Played in two Pro Bowls as a specialist. Has served as special teams captain three seasons and is often among the team leaders in special teams tackles.

Place Kicker – Lawrence Tynes (2007-12)

Second all-time leading scorer in Giants history. Only player in NFL history to successfully make two overtime field goals in the post-season. Kicked field goals in 26 consecutive games, a team record. Giants all-time leading scorer in the post-season. Successfully converted five field goals of 50 yards or more, third-most in team history. His 83.6% field goal conversion rate is the highest for all Giants kickers with at least 100 attempts.

Punter – Sean Landeta (1985-92)

  • All-Decade Team 1980’s
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1986, ’89, ‘90

Led the NFL in punting in 1990. Second highest punting average in franchise history.

Honorable Mention – Dave Jennings (1974-84)

  • NYG Ring of Honor Class of 2011
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1979, ‘80

Led the NFL in punting in 1979 and ’80. Holds the record for most punts in team history.

Kick Returner – David Meggett (1989-94)

Has the second-most kick return yards in Giants history. His kickoff return touchdown in 1992 was the Giants first in 20 seasons. More than just a great returner, was also the Giants third-down back. Set a then-team record with 1,807 all-purpose yards in 1989. Led the Giants in all-purpose yards four times. Threw three touchdown passes on the halfback option. Was the Giants leading receiver in 1990.

Punt Returner – David Meggett** (1989-94)

Returned a team-record six punts for touchdowns. Has the Giants most career punt return yards. Led the NFL in punt return yards in 1989 and 1990.


*A note on the All-Pro designations. Since the beginning of organized professional football in 1920, various media outlets created their own lists of All-Pro teams, using their own criteria. For the sake of simplicity and consistency we have chosen to use Pro-Football-Reference.com as our singular source. They acknowledge First-Team All-Pro selections from The Green Bay Press-Gazette 1925-1930, United Press International from 1931-39, and The Associated Press from 1940 through the present.

** Appears on team more than once.

New York Giants All-Time Most Valuable Players and Players of the YearMost Decorated New York Giants

Jan 222014
 
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New York Giants at Cleveland Brown (November 6, 1955), Rosey Brown (79)

New York Giants at Cleveland Brown (November 6, 1955), Rosey Brown (79)

New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part II)

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

(Part I)

Innovation via Delegation

The New York Giants first sought Army Black Knight Head Coach Earl “Red” Blaik as the replacement for Owen. After he declined the offer, assistant coach and former end Jim Lee Howell accepted the job, but only on the condition that he would be able to hire a staff consisting of coordinators on both sides of the ball – a unique idea at that time. Howell said, “Before the war, they didn’t specialize in coaches. One coach taught everybody everything.” Yet Howell foresaw a structure where the coordinators would handle their own sides of the ball, studying film, drawing up game plans, and grading their players while he oversaw the operation in more of an administrative role.

Landry had already served in a player-coach role under Owen, which not only would continue but expand. Instead of merely teaching Owen’s concepts to his teammates, Landry, who was regarded as an introspective genius by his peers, would be counted on to conceive his own game plans, a task he relished with aplomb. While playing in the Umbrella, he was already thinking ahead, visualizing a strong line that covered all possible gaps, linebackers who flowed to the point-of-attack, and a defensive backfield that covered zones on the field. Howell said, “Landry was brilliant, very, very smart. He could size up a situation very quickly and get it right.”

Sensing the defense was in good hands, Howell went outside the organization to fix the broken offense. Blaik suggested to the Giants his backfield coach, who badly yearned to coach in the NFL. Vince Lombardi (who went by Vinnie) had been a very successful high school coach at St. Cecilia’s in New Jersey before serving his five-year apprenticeship under Blaik at West Point. Among the things he picked up from one of the nation’s highest-regarded coaches was organization of practices, film study (still a relatively new idea at the time and not widely used), and an emphasis on unit execution rather than deception.

Working from Blaik’s dynamic power T-Formation, Lombardi saw many possibilities, which included implementing Single Wing blocking techniques for the offensive line (i.e. pulling guards) that he had learned while playing at Fordham. Howell liked what he saw in this burgeoning coach, “Lombardi teaches the style of football I like and believe in. Vinnie is daring and he is brainy. He knew what he could do with the players. His was very basic in his thinking. He was just a fine coach.”

The basic tenet of Lombardi’s philosophy was that players need condensed, uncomplicated information. “A few men working closely together in a spirit of discipline, singleness of purpose, and a commitment to excellence could succeed no matter the odds.” This was distilled to perfection with his signature play, the sweep.

Giants had been last in rushing in 1953. That would not be the case in 1954. Gifford teamed with new fullbacks Alex Webster and Mel Triplett. Left tackle Rosey Brown blocked and pulled. And the Giants plowed their way through the eight-man defensive fronts that were predominant of that period. Lombardi’s wider line splits made the defensive middle guard (today referred to as the nose tackle) vulnerable to double-teams.

The concert of destruction that took place at the snap was a choreographed framework that allowed for improvisation in accordance with how the defense reacted. The guards pulled. The lead guard blocked the defensive halfback and the offside guard blocked either the inside or outside linebacker. The center blocked back on defensive tackle. The onside offensive tackle chipped the defensive end, and then sealed the outside linebacker. The fullback or halfback blocked the defensive end, and then led the ball carrier into the hole, while the tight end influence-blocked the defensive end away from the point-of-attack. The reads of the ball carrier and his blocker (a halfback or fullback) was to determine the edge blocking, and the runner would decide whether to cut inside or take play to the edge.

Over time, Gifford would also have the added option of throwing the football. If Gifford made the proper read and a big play was available, he would pull up and loft a pass over rolled up defensive backs.

Lombardi humbly stated of his soon-to-be legendary sweep, “There is nothing spectacular about it. It’s just a yard gainer. It’s my number one play because it requires all eleven men to play as one to make it succeed, and that’s what ‘team’ means.”

The players noticed the differences immediately when they met at camp that summer. Halfback Kyle Rote noted, “When Howell took over in 1954 we started to have separate offensive and defensive meetings. Before, we all met in one big room. But the offense and defense became separate and definitive units under Jim Lee.”

Eagle Defense, Power T-Formation

Howell had traveled to Mississippi that off-season and promised Conerly if he came back he would be better protected. To make the existence of his reluctant quarterback more comfortable, the A-Formation was discarded, the T-Formation fully installed, terminology simplified, and a system of automatics that enabled Conerly to change the play at the line was developed.

Lombardi was also a breath of fresh air to Gifford. At the first practice the coach told the player, “We’re through fooling around with you. You’re a back now.” The stronger line would take time to gel, but players like Brown, Jack Stroud, and Ray Wietecha were soon to become stalwarts in the newly renamed Eastern Conference, and they gave the Giants a new attitude.

Although the Giants’ offensive system was largely ground-based and built around Gifford, the passing game was also vastly improved. End Bob Schnelker was the deep threat while Kyle Rote ran clever patterns underneath. Whether the pass was coming from Conerly or Gifford was the defense’s guess. Lombardi said, “Two intangibles make Gifford great – his versatility and his alertness. He gives the opposition fits by keeping it off balance. If the secondary comes up fast to check his run, he’ll heave the ball downfield; if the defense holds back, Frank’ll keep on running.”

The changes were evident early during the regular season. The Giants started the season 4-0, with point totals of 41, 51, and 31 in impressive wins. Week 6 brought a 24-14 loss at Cleveland, but the Giants bounced back with romps over Philadelphia and Washington.

Disaster struck in back-to-back games at the Polo Grounds at the end of November. Gifford injured his knee during a 17-16 loss to the Rams, and Conerly injured his knee on the first play of the rematch with Cleveland, which the Giants lost 17-6. The Browns went on to defeat Detroit for the NFL title.

Emlen Tunnell (45), New York Giants (November 28, 1954)

Emlen Tunnell (45), New York Giants (November 28, 1954)

Despite the third-place finish, the Giants carried optimism into the offseason. Lombardi’s sweep proved to be a success – Gifford’s 5.6 yards per carry led the Eastern Conference. The passing game’s efficiency improved exponentially – in 1953 the Giants’ ends caught a total of three touchdown passes; in 1954 they scored 20. There was a feeling of improvement, accomplishment, and a belief in the new systems being taught by the staff.

Motley left the Browns after the season, but Cleveland made it six consecutive conference titles in 1955 regardless. The Giants started the season slowly and sputtered to a 2-5 record after a physically-tough loss at Cleveland. But they would not lose again. The highlight of their 6-5-1 season was a 35-35 tie with the Browns in the final Giants’ football game at the Polo Grounds (although nobody knew that at the time).

This game marked the first time Howell started Don Heinrich at quarterback, ostensibly to allow Conerly to “spot flaws in the Browns from the bench.” Not all Giants players liked this sometimes controversial strategy, including the supposed number one quarterback himself. Conerly said years later, “You can’t see a damn thing from the bench. It’s the worst seat in the place. I don’t know why they did that.”

The crowd of 49,699 for the game billed as the “grudge match” was the largest in New York that year. Two future NFL head coaches started for Cleveland at linebacker: Walt Michaels and Chuck Noll. The running game by committee for the Browns was Curley Morrison and Ed Modzelewski (whose brother Dick would join the Giants in 1956). On occasion, Brown would deploy five wide receiver sets to confound Landry’s growingly versatile 6-1-4 defense.

The early advantage in the coaching chess game went to Howell as Heinrich staked New York to an early 14-0 lead. However, Graham calmly led his team back and Cleveland took the lead 21-14 late in the third quarter. The Giants, now led by Conerly, immediately tied the game 21-21 on a disputed play. Price was seemingly on his way to a 20-yard touchdown run, but was hit and fumbled at the goal line. New York’s Bob Schnelker came out of the fracas with the ball. When the Giants were awarded a touchdown, the Cleveland bench erupted in protest.

The Giants’ defensive front harassed Graham on the ensuing possession, and forced a Cleveland punt. Conerly engineered a 65-yard drive that he capped off with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Rote in the back of the end zone. Graham responded with a precision drive of his own, tying the game 28-28. Noll gave the Browns the lead when he intercepted a Conerly pass and returned it 14 yards for the score. The Giants took over on their own 15-yard line, and Conerly drove the Giants 85 yards for the touchdown, converting several third downs along the way. The decisive play was a pass completion to Gifford at the Cleveland 15, where he broke a tackle and raced into the end zone for the 23-yard score. Ben Agajanian’s point after knotted the game 35-35.

Graham was the original master of the yet-to-be-named two-minute drill. All opposing defenses and coaches feared his prowess when there was little time left on the clock. He rarely made a bad read, extended plays with his feet, and would run for yardage when necessary. The three minutes left on the clock probably felt like an eternity to player-coach Landry after the kickoff.

Graham opened the proceedings on his own 27-yard line with a bootleg to the New York 45. Just like that, the Browns were nearing the edge of Groza’s field goal range. Two Morrison rushes pushed the ball down to the Giants’ 19-yard line, and Modzelewski plunged to the 14. Groza came on for a 21-yard attempt with 0:25 on the clock, but Phil Knight leapt high from the line and blocked the kick. New York recovered the loose ball while the Polo Grounds crowd rocked in bedlam. Conerly had time left for one desperation pass, which was completed to the middle of the field as time expired. Regardless, the New York fans gave the Giants a standing ovation as they exited the Polo Grounds. Cleveland went on to their sixth consecutive championship game appearance after the season, and sent Graham off to retirement with a 38-14 win over Sid Gillman’s Los Angeles Rams.

Coordination and the Man in the Middle

Significant changes took place for both teams prior to the 1956 season. Brown was frustrated with finding a suitable signal caller for his offense and rotated Tommy O’Connell, George Ratterman, and Babe Parilli under center. The Giants, on the other hand, found a quarterback for their defense. Landry retired as a player and was now a full-time, fedora-wearing coach on the sideline. As a player, Landry knew his own physical limitations, so he had dedicated himself to being the smarter player. He was always aware not only of his own responsibilities on the field but also those of his teammates. In the burgeoning days of Owen’s Umbrella, while Landry coordinated the secondary, he envisioned all 11 players operating in a similar fashion. As he grew into the responsibilities of coaching, Landry began to teach his teammates the concept of reading offensive tendencies, which he called “keys” during film study.

Landry’s central theory was that an offense’s possibilities were limited once its personnel were on the field and a pre-snap formation was aligned. Post-snap, the defense would then read each offensive player’s first step to see where the play would go. Landry distilled it down to a science. For example, the weight a guard had on his front hand could predict whether he was going to drive block or pull on a run, or drop back to protect on a pass. Landry wanted a smart player like himself to realize the defense’s potential.

Sam Huff came to camp as a guard, but was converted to middle linebacker, a new position that evolved from watching film of Bill Willis on the Browns. On some occasions, Willis would be a half-yard back from the line of scrimmage, either in a three-point or two-point stance. But Landry used Huff as a fully declared linebacker, a full yard back from the center, always in a two-point stance, which allowed him to read the offensive backfield. Landry said, “Sam was a very disciplined player. The thing that made him so good was that he would listen, and he would do what was necessary to operate our defense. The effectiveness of the 4-3 depends on the defensive team recognizing a formation, knowing what plays can be run from that formation, and then recognizing keys that tell them the likely play or plays to expect.” Huff attributed the success to his teammates, “We played as a team on that Giants’ squad. I had help. The defense was set up so the defensive linemen actually kept the blockers off me.”

When the two 1-1 teams met in Week 3 at Cleveland, the strain of lacking an on-field leader had already worn on Brown. Always way ahead of his time, he conceived of radio communication between himself and the quarterback to get the plays called. The Giants were onto him early, and designated rookie end Bob Topp to sit on the end of the bench and decipher the Browns’ plays with a receiver tuned in to Cleveland’s frequency. Brown eventually reverted to his rotating guard system to send the calls in, but the Giants rolled to their first win over the Browns in three years, 21-9, behind the strength of a rushing attack that compiled 256 yards. On Monday, The New York Times declared “the Giants handled the Browns the in the manner the Browns used to handle the Giants.” On Tuesday,NFL Commissioner Bell barred electronic coaching devices on game day.

The Giants flexed their muscles with four more wins over Eastern Conference opponents, three of which took place on their new home field at venerable Yankee Stadium, just across the Macomb Dam Bridge from the Polo Grounds. When the Giants and Browns met in Week 11 for their rematch, 4-6 Cleveland was in the unfamiliar position of looking up in the standings at 7-2-1 New York. Brown must have used that as motivation, as the Browns defied expectations and manhandled the Giants in the rain and snow on the muddy field in a 24-7 romp.

The Giants clinched the Eastern Conference the following week with a win at Philadelphia, then won their first NFL Title since 1938 when they defeated the Chicago Bears at Yankee Stadium 47-7. Gifford had a season for the ages. He led team in both rushing yards and pass receptions, for the first of four consecutive seasons, and led the NFL with 1,422 total yards from scrimmage (819 rushing, 603 receiving). Gifford scored nine total touchdowns, five rushing and four receiving, and added two more scoring passes from his option role on the sweep. He also had 161 total yards and a touchdown in the championship game against the Bears. His receiving the NFL MVP award was almost anti-climactic.

The Browns made good use of their draft position following their first losing season in team history, taking fullback Jim Brown from Syracuse. The quarterback situation was still somewhat unsettled, as Brown split starts between O’Connell and Milt Plum, but the effects were minimal as their greatest success came when they were handing off to Brown, who led the NFL as a rookie with 942 yards and nine touchdowns. Brown would lead the NFL in rushing eight of his nine seasons, and this was the only one in which he did not go over 1,000 yards. He would also grow into a receiving threat over time, and lead the NFL in total yards from scrimmage six times.

Umbrella Defense, Split T-Formation, Wing-T Formation

The Giants opened the season at Cleveland in what would be a tense defensive battle. Brown rushed for 89 yards on 21 carries, but neither team accumulated 200 total yards of offense. Cleveland won on a Groza kick at 0:23, 6-3. The Giants rebounded to win seven of their next eight games, fueled in part by another Landry defensive innovation: a linebacker “red dog” in which at the snap of the ball, Huff or one of the outside linebackers would immediately attack the backfield.

When the calendar turned to December, the 7-2 Giants were just a half game behind the 7-1-1 Browns. New York dropped games against San Francisco and Pittsburgh, rendering the finale against Cleveland meaningless in regards to the Eastern Conference standings. However, the Giants-Browns rivalry had achieved Yankees-Red Sox status, and the advance ticket sales for the game were 50,000 and the turnstile count for the game was 54,292, the Giants’ largest home crowd for the season.

This was the first game where Landry assigned Huff the explicit responsibility of keying solely on Brown. Landry said, “Our defense was not designed specifically for Sam Huff to stop Jim Brown, our defense was designed to stop the offense we were working against. Our defense was based on coordination. Sam was just one of the 11 people who were coordinated. Specifically, the front seven was coordinated against the run. He was just one element in that group. But he got great recognition, which he deserved, because in this particular defense he was stopping Jim Brown, who is almost unstoppable. ” Huff versus Brown almost became a rivalry within a rivalry.

The Giants’ offense played well. Heinrich and Conerly combined for 282 passing yards and Gifford scored two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. New York led 28-27 with under 7:00 left on the clock, but Plum lead Cleveland to the winning score as Graham had done so many times before. Brown had another strong outing for Cleveland, rushing for 78 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown in the 34-28 victory. Cleveland returned to the championship game but lost again to Detroit.

Reckoning and Recognition

The Football Giants’ ascension in New York’s consciousness came at just the right time. Following the 1957 season, both the Baseball Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers left town for California. Yankee Stadium was the fulcrum of professional sports in New York for all of 1958.

The first meeting between the two Eastern Conference stalwarts did not take place until the first week of November when the 5-0 Browns hosted the 3-2 Giants. A raucous crowd of 78,404, the fourth largest in Cleveland professional football history to-date, packed Cleveland Stadium but went home disappointed after a second-half come-from-behind effort by New York.

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (November 2, 1958)

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (November 2, 1958)

Brown looked unstoppable for Cleveland in the first half, rushing for a 58-yard touchdown (his 15th of the season in just his sixth game!) but the aerial game struggled. Plum completed only four passes for the entire game and was intercepted twice by Jimmy Patton.

The Giants’ attack was balanced. Conerly tossed three scoring passes, two to Webster in the second half, the last of which came with less than three minutes remaining. They brought Conerly’s career touchdown pass total to 140, which placed him second all-time behind Sammy Baugh’s 187. The unlikely hero was Triplett, who outrushed Brown on the day 116 yards to 113 (which was 50 yards below Brown’s season average). It would be the sole 100-yard effort in Triplett’s career.

Landry’s coordinated defense truly came into its own in the second half. He had noticed keys on Cleveland’s formations that tipped off when Brown was getting the ball, and when he was being used as a decoy and the ball would go instead to Bobby Mitchell. Huff’s reads of Brown were nearly flawless, as Cleveland had only 23 plays from scrimmage in the second half, gained only two first downs, and never crossed the 50-yard line. Cleveland’s 17 points were far below the 35 they had averaged over their first five games.

The defense-first trend continued for the Giants throughout the season. The 1958 Giants would end up being the lowest-scoring team of Howell’s tenure with 20.5 points per game. But the New York fans not only didn’t mind this brand of football, they relished it. Landry recalled, “We knew we were something special in New York. The city was just on fire. It was amazing the way they supported the Giants, and the defense. This was a brand new thing in pro football, because no one even knew when you played defense until the late fifties.”

Cleveland and New York met for the final game of the regular season at Yankee Stadium with the Eastern Conference crown on the line. The 9-2 Browns stunned the 63,192 in attendance on the first play from scrimmage. Brown galloped through the middle of the Giants’ 4-3 front untouched and outran the secondary for a 65-yard touchdown. It was all defense for the remainder of the half as Pat Summerall and Groza exchanged field goals for the 10-3 halftime score. The Summerall field goal came after an uncharacteristic Cleveland fumble, which was recovered by Jim Katkavage on Cleveland’s 39-yard line.

As the snow fell during the scoreless third quarter, the Browns’ confidence increased. Their opening possession of the third quarter took a full 12 minutes off the clock, but the drive ended without points as the Giants thwarted a fake field goal attempt. Conerly’s unit was unable to move the ball and punted as the period came to a close. The big play to start the game loomed as the possible difference in a trip to the NFL Championship. This game took on the feel of a stare-down between two rugged defensive outfits.

Early in the fourth quarter the unthinkable happened as Cleveland turned the ball over in their own territory a second time. Poise and precision had always been hallmarks of Paul Brown’s team, which had committed just 12 turnovers in their first 11 games. Plum fumbled on his own 47-yard line and Andy Robustelli recovered for New York at the 45. Stymied by Cleveland’s defense all day, Lombardi’s unit seized the sudden change in momentum and struck quickly on his signature sweep/option. On first down, Conerly faked to Webster and handed off to Gifford who ran toward the right sideline. As he neared the boundary, Gifford spotted Rote coming open behind the defense. He pulled up and lofted a deep pass for a 39-yard advance to the Browns’ six-yard line. After a rush for a loss and incomplete pass by Conerly, Gifford completed a touchdown pass to Schnelker between two defenders on another sweep/option to tie the game 10-10 with just over 10 minutes to play.

Bob Schnelker (85), New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Bob Schnelker (85), New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

The Giants’ defense forced a punt after two sacks of Plum by Rosey Grier. But the offense failed to capitalize despite favorable field position when Summerall’s 33-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. The kicker remembered, “I’d have liked to have gone anywhere but back to the bench. But four or five of the guys came over and told me to forget it, that they’d get me another chance.”

Summerall did get another chance. The New York defense forced another three-and-out. The Giants fielded a short punt near mid-field (the exact yard line was impossible to determine on the now snow-covered field). Three incomplete passes left the Giants’ last hope hanging in the balance on fourth down and 2:07 on the clock, with a tie as good as a victory for Cleveland. Confidence was lacking for a Giants’ offense that had struggled all day. On third down they had missed a sure touchdown connection between Conerly (who was only 10-for-27 on the day) and Webster. “I had (the defender) beat pretty good, five or six yards. But the ball came out of the snow – I know that’s no excuse – and it went right through my hands and I dropped it on the five-yard line.” Webster said, “It would have been an easy six points.”

Howell took the unusual step of overruling his offensive coordinator Lombardi, who wanted to call another pass play, and sent Summerall on to the field for a desperation kick attempt. Summerall said, “I couldn’t believe that Jim Lee was asking me to that. That was the longest attempt I’d ever made for the Giants. It was a bad field and it was so unrealistic. Most of the fellows on the bench couldn’t believe it either.” Wellington Mara shared the popular belief, “That Summerall kick was the most vivid play I remember. I was (up in the press box) sitting next to Ken Kavanaugh and Walt Yowarsky and we all said, ‘He can’t kick it that far. What are we doing?’”

The attempt was logged officially from 49 yards, but some believe it was further. Summerall said, “No one knows how far it had to go. You couldn’t see the yard markers. The snow had obliterated them. But it was more than 50 I’ll tell you that.” Rote supported that theory. He remembered standing on the 50-yard line and said that Conerly spotted the ball, “two yards past me.”

Pat Summerall (88) and Charlie Conerly (42), New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Pat Summerall (88) and Charlie Conerly (42), New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Regardless of the actual distance, any kick on that snow-covered field in the wind was going to be a formidable task. As Conerly cleared a spot for the placement, he heard Cleveland players shouting “stay onsides!” to one another. The snap, spot, and hold were perfect as could be, but the ball’s trajectory was not.

Summerall described the kick’s near wayward flight, “I knew as soon as I touched it that it was going to be far enough. My only thought was that sometime you hit a ball too close to the center and it behaves like a knuckleball, breaking from side to side. It was weaving out. But when it got to the 10 I could see it breaking back to the inside.” Conerly felt a little better about it, “I looked up as soon as Pat hit the ball. It looked real good and it made me feel real good. There was a lot of guilt riding on that one.”

Pat Summerall's Field Goal is Good, Cleveland Browns at New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Pat Summerall’s Field Goal is Good, Cleveland Browns at New York Giants (December 14, 1958)

Summerall was mobbed by teammates as Yankee Stadium erupted in delirium. Plum moved Cleveland near mid-field where Summerall’s counterpart Groza attempted what was thought to be a 55-yard field goal, but it fell well short of the cross bar. The Giants survived 13-10 and had forced a playoff for the right to face the Baltimore Colts for the NFL Championship.

The perfectionist Paul Brown blamed himself for the loss. He stayed up that night and re-watched the game film. He concluded he made a tactical error by running the ball too much, perhaps caused by overconfidence from the game’s first play. After that 65-yard touchdown run, Brown was held to just 83 yards on 25 carries.

Brown was not the only one looking back; history was not on the Giants’ side. The Giants were 0-2 in the franchise’s two previous standings tie-breakers. The 1950 loss at Cleveland lingered in recent memory, but another from the past resonated as well. After the 1943 season, New York was tied atop the Eastern Division with Washington 6-3-1. The Giants forced the playoff by defeating the Redskins not only once, but twice, to close the season. However, despite the playoff being held within the friendly confines of the Polo Grounds, Sammy Baugh and his teammates exacted thorough revenge by whipping the Giants 28-0. Defeating the same team three times in the same season was believed to be an unrealistic expectation by most observers.

The players did not seem to notice the doubters however. Practices at Yankee Stadium were unusually spirited throughout the week, crisp and hard-hitting. The enthusiasm carried over to the game on a bright but bitterly cold 20-degree Sunday in front of 62,742 eager fans.

Jim Brown received the opening kickoff and advanced it 45 yards. Plum completed a pass before Brown fumbled on a hit by Katkavage that was recovered by Grier. Heinrich returned the favor however and threw an interception of his own. After a Cleveland punt, Heinrich threw a second interception. The New York defense held again. And Conerly took the field and crafted a 12-play, 84-yard drive, mixing runs and passes. The final play of the drive was a bit of razzle-dazzle drawn up by Lombardi earlier that week.

The play started out as a simple sweep left by Webster on the Cleveland 18-yard line. Webster then handed off to a reversing Gifford sprinting right. Gifford cut through a hole behind the right guard. Racing up field, Gifford juked a safety then surprised everybody when he lateralled to a trailing Conerly. The old quarterback was hit at the goal line but fell into the end zone for what would be the game’s lone touchdown. Conerly said, “It was something new we put in this week. The lateral on the end was optional.”

The Browns responded with another drive into Giants’ territory, but Groza’s 46-yard field goal attempt was wide left and short. Conerly engineered another drive that Summerall capped with a three-pointer to give the Giants a 10-0 lead at the half. Cleveland managed one more scoring threat late in the third quarter when Don Maynard lost a fumble returning a punt. Plum moved the Browns to the New York six-yard line, but following two sacks, Huff intercepted a pass on the first play of the fourth quarter. Cleveland never threatened again. After a quick exchange of punts the Giants ground away the clock with their power running game and controlled the ball 10 of the final 11 minutes.

Pat Summerall (88), New York Giants, Eastern Division Playoff (December 21, 1958)

Pat Summerall (88), New York Giants, Eastern Division Playoff (December 21, 1958)

The furiously-fought game’s stars were the magnificent front four, who wrecked Cleveland’s blocking schemes. Robustelli, Katkavage, Grier, and Modzelewski kept Huff free from interference and harassed Plum and Jim Ninowski every single snap. Brown endured the worst showing of his otherwise sterling career with eight yards on seven rushes. Taking into account Brown’s 20-yard run in the third quarter, it means Brown lost 12 yards on his other six carries! Huff said, “Cleveland likes to run its plays to perfection. As long as they run the play perfect, they figure your mistakes will beat you. Well, here I was knowing Jimmy would run and just where he would run. I wasn’t about to make any mistakes.”

The fans in attendance helped fuel the inspired front four’s engine, roaring their appreciation every time the defense held and the Cleveland offense trudged to the sideline. Brown said, “They just played even harder than last week, more determined.” Cleveland was held to a meager 86 yards of offense and seven first downs. The Giants had two times as many plays from scrimmage, 80 to 40, and they controlled the pace with 211 yards on 53 rushes. This was only the second time the Browns were held scoreless in nine NFL seasons, and it was the first in 114 games. The last occurrence was the very first meeting between the two teams in 1950. Howell acknowledged the impressive performance, “They played the best defensive ball I ever saw a club play against a real good team.” Katkavage succinctly stated, “We just played better under pressure.”

The Giants hosted the Baltimore Colts the following week in what became known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Giants’ fans would probably disagree as their team lost the first overtime game in NFL history, 23-17. But the stage had been set for professional football to capture the nation’s imagination. After the season, Lombardi moved on to Green Bay. The Giants repeated as Eastern Conference champions in 1959, this time on the arm of NFL MVP Charlie Conerly who blossomed under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Allie Sherman. The clinching-game was on a Yankee Stadium field flooded by delirious fans who were probably somewhat in disbelief of the one-sided 48-7 score over Brown’s Cleveland team.

By the end of the next decade, football not only surpassed baseball as the National Pastime, it had become a national obsession, dominating television ratings in season while commanding headlines throughout the offseason. This was a far cry from the game’s humble stature at the opening of the decade when NFL box scores were fortunate to receive a few paragraphs of type while being buried on the sports pages alongside the previous day’s finishers in the money at the local race track.

The two teams represented the American / Eastern Conference in all 10 NFL Title games in the 1950’s, with the Browns winning three (’50, ’54 & ’55) and the Giants one (‘56.) Each franchise is well represented from the era at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (December 6, 1959)

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (December 6, 1959)

Cleveland: Paul Brown, Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Dante Lavelli, Len Ford, Frank Gatski, Lou Groza, Doug Atkins, Mike McCormack, Jim Brown, Henry Jordan, Willie Davis, Gene Hickerson, Bobby Mitchell

New York: Steve Owen, Emlen Tunnell, Arnie Weinmeister, Tom Landry, Frank Gifford, Roosevelt Brown, Vince Lombardi, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff

The head-to-head outcomes were remarkably even, with Cleveland holding a 10-9-1 regular-season advantage, and both teams winning a conference tie-breaker.

New York Giants vs. Cleveland Browns (1950's)

10/1/50New York 6 at Cleveland 0
10/22/50New York 17 vs Cleveland 13
12/17/50New York 3 at Cleveland 8 (American Conference Playoff)
10/28/51New York 13 at Cleveland 14
11/18/51New York 0 vs Cleveland 10
10/12/52New York 17 at Cleveland 9
12/14/52 New York 37 vs Cleveland 34
10/25/53 New York 0 vs Cleveland 7
12/6/53New York 14 at Cleveland 62
10/31/54 New York 14 at Cleveland 24
11/28/54 New York 7 vs Cleveland 16
11/6/55 New York 14 at Cleveland 24
11/27/55New York 35 vs Cleveland 35
10/14/56New York 21 at Cleveland 9
12/9/56 New York 7 vs Cleveland 24
9/29/57 New York 3 at Cleveland 6
12/15/57New York 28 vs Cleveland 34
11/2/58New York 21 at Cleveland 17
12/14/58New York 13 vs Cleveland 10
12/21/58 New York 10 vs Cleveland 0 (Eastern Conference Playoff)
10/11/59 New York 10 at Cleveland 6
12/6/59New York 48 vs Cleveland 7
The Rivalry That Changed Professional Football: New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part I)