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

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.

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)

  • 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 in 1935. 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.

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.

Fullback – Tuffy Leemans (1936-43), Assistant Coach (1943-44)

  • 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 twice.

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.

Blocking Back/Quarterback – Dale Burnett (1930-39)

Versatile offensive player with speed and agility. Blocked and handled the ball well. 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 25 touchdowns scored was the franchise record.


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 (1951-53)

  • 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. Also punted. 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. Powerful 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.”

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)

  • 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.

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. One of the best punt returners in NFL history. 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)
Jan 202014
 
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Emlen Tunnell (45), Tom Landry (49); New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 1, 1950)

Emlen Tunnell (45), Tom Landry (49); New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 1, 1950)

New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part I)

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

When most people think of a fierce rivalry, the first image to arise is often a series of intense, physical contests – two teams meeting on the field, imposing wills, doling out punishment, one trying to outlast the other. One rivalry during the NFL’s transformative stage encompassed all of that while transcending the physical scrums along the line of scrimmage. When New York and Cleveland jousted for American and Eastern Conference supremacy, the games were more than a battle of brute strength. The coaching staffs engaged in contests of creativity and attempted to outsmart one another. The game of football and its fans still reap the rewards to this very day.

The Father of Modern Professional Football

The organization and structure of football practices are now taken for granted, but it was Paul Brown’s reforms that profoundly altered the way teams prepare for football games. George Halas, a legendary innovator in his own right, credited Brown with “turning the league into an organized, highly skilled endeavor instead of a bunch of big lugs whaling the daylights out of each other.” Brown himself humbly stated his motivation for organizing his practices was to instill a sense of pride into his assistant coaches and players. He wanted them to feel that football, as a full-time occupation, was important, and something worthy of complete dedication.

Brown was strong-willed and did not waver on a conviction. “I believed strongly in the things that were necessary for us to win, and I refused to tolerate any exceptions to those beliefs.” He held his staff and players to high standards. “I always believed that young men want to work in an atmosphere of reasoned discipline and order, and respond better under those conditions.” As a result, the following major innovations that Brown began not only changed the way football was played, but how it was perceived by the general public:

  • Full-time player scouting
    • Character was as equally important as athletic skill; “selfish or disloyal, or those who could not adjust their individual skills to our team concepts” were dismissed from consideration
    • “The ability to perform under pressure is the mark of a great player”
    • Standardized the 40-yard dash after calculating the average distance needed to cover a punt, the most repeated play in football
  • Film study
    • Not only of opponents, but self-scouting and recognizing his team’s own tendencies
  • Playbooks
    • Players were required to take notes during meetings and routinely quizzed to gauge their retention
    • If players understood why they were doing something, “they were more apt to be in the spirit of the occasion”
  • Took play-calling duties away from the quarterback
    • Initially sent plays in by rotating offensive guards; later pioneered the use of transistor radios in the quarterback’s helmet
    • Provided the quarterback with “check-with-me” calls to use at the line of scrimmage if the defense’s alignment was unfavorable
  • Instituted a year-round conditioning plan
  • Racially re-integrated professional football
    • Brought Marion Motley and Bill Willis to the Browns in 1946; no black players had been on an NFL roster since 1934
  • Meticulously pre-planned practices
    • Handed out itineraries to players
    • Morning practice would be spent on all aspects of a single rushing play, then afternoon practice on a passing play
  • Designed an attacking passing offense
    • Conceptualized read-and-react option routes (today known as ”option routes”) and timing patterns
    • Analyzed the geometry of the football field, exploiting open space by spreading defenses away from the line of scrimmage
    • Taught offensive linemen to block passively on pass plays, forming a ”pocket” for the quarterback
    • Conceptualized zone blocking for the offensive line to maximize the capabilities of fullback Jim Brown

More than anything, Brown was passionate about teaching. The list of men who played under and coached alongside Brown, eventually finding their own success as head coaches, is unparalleled:

  • Weeb Ewbank
  • Lou Saban
  • Blanton Collier
  • Don Shula
  • Chuck Noll
  • Don McCafferty
  • Bill Walsh

Brown was tagged as football’s first “genius,” a title he disdained, even if it was merited. His colleagues did not dispute it. They knew they had to be prepared and have their teams performing at their best when they faced Cleveland, and that is what served to further the game of football more than anything else. Head coaches did not want to be embarrassed. They readily adopted Brown’s practices and spent extra time studying film, developing counter plans as they anticipated how Brown would try to beat them. Brown inspired innovation among his colleagues, which is possibly the greatest of all possible legacies.

An Unlikely Protagonist

Giants’ head coach Steve Owen had enjoyed a great run with his team from 1933 through 1946, winning eight Eastern Division titles and two NFL Championships. During his tenure, New York made playing defense a brutal art form. Owen pioneered defenders playing off of the line of scrimmage when most teams deployed seven-man lines and relied on safeties to clean up on ball carriers who may have slipped through cracks in the front wall. Hall of Fame center and linebacker extraordinaire Mel Hein recalled, “Owen brought in the 5-3-3 in 1937 and we first used it extensively in 1938. The 5-3-3 was especially effective against Chicago’s T-Formation. Since we had linebackers left, right and center, none of us had to go running after the first fake. We could wait in our positions to see if the play was coming. Also, we ran stunts from this defense, with the linebackers and linemen crisscrossing as they rushed.”

Passing offense innovations accelerated with the arrival of precision quarterbacks such as Washington’s Sammy Baugh and Chicago’s Sid Luckman. Deft receivers like Don Hutson caused problems for defenses packed near the scrimmage line. Large, slow linebackers were exposed in coverage. Many teams adopted Earle “Greasy” Neale’s 5-2-4 Philadelphia Eagle defensive alignment that became known as the Eagle Defense. Earle said, “This defense was most effective against the tight T-Formation. A man-in-motion or a flanker spread it out.” The four defensive backs covered more of the field, but it would soon be discovered that this defense was still vulnerable.

The Giants were mired in a malaise of decline when the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) merged with the established league prior to the 1950 season. Realignment brought change and new challenges. The Eastern Division was rechristened the American Conference when it inherited the four-time champions of the rival league. The Browns’ 52-4-3 legacy, which included professional football’s first perfect season [15-0] in 1948, preceded them, even if NFL stalwarts were loath to recognize their accomplishments.

Owen’s football roots were firmly grounded in single-wing style formations, having a hand in the dirt and winning the battle on the line of scrimmage. He hadn’t brought a new offensive concept to the game since his A-Formation in the early 1930’s and the Giants were among the last teams to resist adapting to the modern T-Formation.

Defensive coaching was minimal in the late 1940’s. Teams met as large groups and 80% of the meetings and practices were spent on offense. Defenses lined up at the line of scrimmage, beat the man in front of them, and then pursued the ball carrier. There was little or no anticipation whatsoever. Aside from accounting for a man in motion, pre-snap defensive alignments did not change.

The Umbrella Opens

Brown proved to be a catalyst for change. Knowing he would face Cleveland twice every season, Owen spent the offseason studying game film of his new opponent. Owen had the foresight to realize brute force was not enough to get the job done against this “finesse” team. He needed to account for the open spaces on the football field. The Giants played a 6-1 defensive front, and Owen took advantage of the talent on his roster, knowing he had rangy, athletic defensive ends. They would align in their standard front, but at the snap of the ball the ends would drop out and cover the flats, while the defensive halfbacks would retreat. The two safeties covered the deep middle, and the result was an umbrella-like coverage. He thought this would serve the dual purpose of controlling the Browns’ precise passing attack while still being able to defend bruising fullback Marion Motley.

The scheme looked great on paper. Fortunately the Giants received a small bonanza of their own from the AAFC that made it come to life on the field. The New York Yankees were one of the teams that gave the Browns some competition during their four-year reign. Although they never defeated Cleveland, New York tied them once in 1947 and opposed the Browns twice in the AAFC Championship Game, nearly defeating them in 1946 before an Otto Graham-led 4th quarter comeback sent the Yankees home with a 14-9 defeat. The strength of the Yankee team was its defense, and Owen’s umbrella was supported by four newcomers from the Yankees: Arnie Weinmeister, Otto Schnellbacher, Harmon Rowe, and Tom Landry.

Single Wing, A-Formation, 5-3 Defense

Weinmeister was a rare physical specimen. At 6’4” and 240 pounds, he had the strength to consistently win skirmishes in the trenches, but it was his fluid athletic ability, speed, and the desire to dominate that set him apart. He regularly terrorized quarterbacks in the pocket and tackled backs and receivers downfield. When Weinmeister joined the Giants, he told Owen the way to defeat Cleveland was “to knock them on their butts.” Weinmeister and fellow tackle Al DeRogatis were charged with crashing the pocket on pass plays, and funneling Motley to linebacker John Cannady on rushes.

Schnellbacher, Rowe, and Landry formed a unique blend of talents with Emlen Tunnell and were the key to the success of Owen’s strategy. Defensive halfbacks Landry and Rowe played with solid technique and rarely gambled in their coverage. Tunnell had great range and ball instincts. He often freelanced through the secondary, and usually had the speed to recover from a misread. Schnellbacher combined instincts with technique. What set them apart as a unit was all four were exceptional tacklers. Tunnell recalled years later, “That was the best tackling backfield I ever saw. Everyone knew what the other fellow was going to do and that’s what made it so much fun.”

The two-time defending NFL Champion Eagles did not have much fun when they faced Cleveland on Saturday night of the NFL’s showcase opener. The pro passing game was relatively unsophisticated at this point, and Brown took a quantum step forward for this game by splitting both his ends wide on the line of scrimmage. Brown believed, “You had to integrate the running game with an intelligently conceived passing offense to win in pro football.” He also refused to allow the defense to dictate where the ball would be thrown.

Neale’s Eagle Defense was subsequently shredded by quarterback Graham’s sharp passes to ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli. When Neale adjusted by having his two linebackers cover the flats, Graham had Motley pound into the undefended middle. When the linebackers pinched in, Graham sent halfback Dub Jones around end to catch a pass in the short middle or sent Motley wide on a sweep. After the 35-10 thumping, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell congratulated Brown and told him Cleveland was, “the most intensely coached team I have ever seen.”

The Giants opened their season the next day in Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers 18-7, playing their standard defense, as Owen dared not tip his hand to the shrewd Brown. The schedule makers did New York a tremendous favor by giving them a bye for Week 2. The Browns traveled to Baltimore and whipped the Colts 31-0 while Owen drilled his new scheme to perfection at practice.

The Giants visited Cleveland in Week 3, and the results of the new defense were so profound they may have even shocked Owen himself. As New York’s defense came to the line, they showed a standard 6-1 front. At the snap, the ends quickly dropped to cover the flats and the defensive halfbacks dropped to cover the deep sidelines while the safeties covered the middle. The four down linemen attacked the backfield while the linebacker spied on Motley. The Browns were unprepared but, more surprisingly, were slow to respond to the strategy.

Emlen Tunnell (45), New York Giants (October 22, 1950)

Emlen Tunnell (45), New York Giants (October 22, 1950)

Graham did not complete a single pass in the first half and was intercepted three times. The Cleveland fans, so used to seeing their team trounce the opposition, booed their team as they went into the locker room trailing 6-0. In the second half, Owen anticipated Brown altering his strategy. Cleveland came out in the third quarter shortening the pass routes of the ends and running wide, but Owen had closed the Umbrella, blitzing his defensive backs, pressuring Graham, and plugging any rushing lanes. The 6-0 score held up, marking the first time the Browns had ever been held scoreless. So impressed was the multi-talented Tunnell, he later said, “We did such a job that afternoon that I never again wanted to play offense.”

Tunnell still clearly recalled the details years later when he was a Giants’ assistant coach, “In 1950 we developed a defense against the Browns that came to be known as the Umbrella. Our ends, Jim Duncan and Ray Poole, would drift back and cover the flats while tackles Arnie Weinmeister and Al DeRogatis and guards Jon Baker and John Mastrangelo were charged with rushing the passer and containing the run. The lone linebacker, John Cannady, was told to follow the Brown fullback wherever he went. Tom Landry played the left corner, Harmon Rowe the right, I was the strong safety and Otto Schnellbacher the weak. If you would look at this alignment from high in the stands it looked like an opened umbrella. In truth, it was the same 4-3-2-2 used today. We did go into other formations, but mostly we used this 4-3 arrangement. It was so successful against the Browns that we beat them twice. The first time we played them we shut them out, the first time that had ever happened to them.”

Given the challenges Cleveland’s offense presented, DeRogatis explained the defense’s strategic goals. “The modern 4-3-4 defense came into being largely because of the fantastic ability of the old Cleveland Browns to make a defense look bad. With great ends, a great blocking and running fullback, and a phenomenal quarterback, the Browns, coached by Paul Brown moved with awesome finesse over almost everyone they met. As a result, Steve Owen devised the Umbrella Defense, which dropped the standard six-man defensive line, to go to at least a version of the 4-3-4 which most teams use now. Against the standard six, the receivers could beat you short; the swing could wreck you outside; the fullback forced you to protect the middle; and the quarterback, who could do anything, passed, ran, screened, drew, and kept you off balance. So the 4-3-4 was born and almost revolutionized the game.”

The teams met for a rematch in front of 41,734 enthusiastic fans at the Polo Grounds three weeks later. The 4-1 Browns punctured the 4-1 Giants’ Umbrella with 13 second-quarter points. The final seven came seconds before the half following a major mental error by New York return-man Jim Ostendarp. On the kickoff following a Lou Groza field goal, Ostendarp let the ball hit the ground and roll to the one-yard line, where Cleveland recovered. Graham plunged for the touchdown on the next play to increase Cleveland’s lead to 13-3.

Owen altered his defensive strategy for the second half after Weinmeister left the game with a knee injury. Instead of having the ends drop off in the Umbrella they rushed Graham relentlessly. Poole and DeRogatis harassed Graham, who completed just four passes and lost 71 yards in sacks over the final 30 minutes. Cleveland crossed midfield just once. The Giants’ offense completed the comeback on a bit of razzle-dazzle when quarterback Charlie Conerly faked a hand-off to Eddie Price and flipped the ball behind his back to Joe Scott who raced around end for an uncontested touchdown and a 17-13 win.

Weinmeister boasted after the game, “We were smarter and better. We proved that defense was more important than offense. A lot of people thought the first win was a fluke. We knew it wasn’t and we were determined to prove it to everybody else.”

Cleveland rolled through the remainder of their schedule unblemished. The Giants fell flat versus the Chicago Cardinals the week after their victory over the Browns. The ship was righted quickly, and New York won impressively the rest of the way, including an amazing run where they scored 50 points three times in four weeks. The Giants and Browns finished tied atop the American Conference with 10-2 records, necessitating a playoff in Cleveland.

Bitterly cold temperatures limited attendance to 33,054 fans. The field was frozen and Owen obviously recalled how basketball shoes helped his underdog Giants pull off an upset against the heavily-favored Chicago Bears in 1934. He brought enough on the trip so the entire squad would be outfitted for the full 60 minutes. The master of preparation Brown would not be outdone; Cleveland took the field in black Chuck Taylors.

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (December 17, 1950)

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (December 17, 1950)

After the Browns went up 3-0 early in the first quarter, both defenses took control. The icy field made it impossible for backs and receivers to cut sharply, and for passers Graham, Conerly, and Travis Tidwell (Giants) to plant and throw. The teams would combine for just six pass completions and 91 passing yards for the entire game. Owen mixed the A-Formation with the T-Formation throughout the first half, before committing solely the A for the second half

Five minutes into fourth quarter, New York’s Gene “Choo Choo” Roberts whipped around right end with interference in front of him. Before he could reach the end zone, Roberts was caught from behind on the Cleveland 4-yard line by Bill Willis after a gain of 32 yards. Two plunges by Price netted just a single yard (Willis was in on both tackles). On third-and-goal from the three, Conerly tossed a touchdown to end Bob McChesney, but the Giants were flagged for a false start. On the next play, Conerly’s pass was intercepted, but Cleveland was called for defensive holding. The Browns’ fans were in a full-throated frenzy, on their feet chanting “Hold that line!” as they exhorted their defense.

On first and goal from the four, Price ran for one, but the Giants were penalized for an illegal snap. On second and goal from the eight, Joe Scott was tackled for a five-yard loss by Willis. Conerly’s third-down pass was deflected incomplete and the Giants settled for a field goal and 3-3 tie after the frustrating series.

Taking possession with 6:10 left in the game, Graham led the Browns on a march downfield, including three Graham rushes for 36 yards. However, like the Giants on the previous series, Cleveland settled for a field goal after having a goal-to-go situation. With time on the clock for one last desperate drive, Conerly was tackled in the end zone for a safety, completing the Browns’ quest for revenge on the only team to defeat them in the 1950 season. Cleveland went on to defeat the Los Angeles Rams (who ironically had left the city of Cleveland following an NFL Championship in 1945) in one of the most thrilling championship games in history, 30-28.

Despite falling short in the playoff game, the Giants’ three-game series with the Browns that season had to be considered a success. In 180 total minutes played, Owen’s Umbrella Defense surrendered only one touchdown to an offense that routinely piled up points against the rest of the league. The Browns led the American Conference with 310 points scored, and their average margin of victory was just over 13 points. In their three games against New York, their aggregate 21 points came from the lone touchdown, four field goals, and a safety from their defense.

Brown poked some holes in Owen’s Umbrella the next season. Cleveland swept the season series with New York, won the American Conference title but lost to the Detroit Lions in the NFL Championship game. In 1952 the Giants swept the Browns, but Cleveland three-peated as conference champs, and lost again to Detroit. The significance of these two campaigns came to full fruition in 1953. While Brown furthered the offense of the future, developing and expanding the roles of the Split End and Flanker in T-Formation variations, Owen never fully adapted to the T-Formation, and continually reverted to his familiar A-Formation. This stunted the development of quarterback Conerly.

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 12, 1952)

New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 12, 1952)

The nadir came in an ugly 62-14 December loss to Cleveland at the Polo Grounds that was so bad even backup quarterback George Ratterman threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter after Graham had been pulled. The Giants’ leadership was forced to admit their 23-year steward for the franchise needed to retire. The archaic offense was inept, scoring a meager 179 points over the 12-game season. The once-formidable defense was ragged; the league caught up to the Umbrella scheme and there was no counter strategy on the horizon. The locker room was despondent; many players contemplated early retirement.

Multi-threat performer Frank Gifford, who played both ways and averaged 50 minutes per game at the end of the season while the Giants struggled with injuries, recalled, “The last five games of 1953, I didn’t come out. I played offense and defense; I was kicking off, running back punts, kicking field goals. I was really questioning whether to come back in 1954.” A significant part of Gifford’s frustration was the inability of Owen to figure out a role that maximized his abilities. Gifford had been a star tailback for USC in college, but Owen relegated him to defensive halfback. “I would have cut the good looking son-of-a-bitch if he hadn’t been our top draft pick,” said Owen.

Quarterback Conerly, who was the NFL Rookie of the year in 1948, would turn 34 the next season. He was tired of being beaten up not only on the field behind a faltering offensive line, but by the booing Polo Grounds fans who hung up signs reading “Back to the Farm Charlie.”

The Rivalry That Changed Professional Football: New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part II)
Nov 042013
 
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Y.A. Tittle, Cleveland Browns at New York Giants (December 17, 1961)

Y.A. Tittle, Cleveland Browns at New York Giants (December 17, 1961)

Y.A. Tittle’s Incomparable 1962 and 1963 Seasons

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

The potential of a tree exists inside every seed. Unbeknownst to all, the seed of the Giants offensive explosion of the early 1960’s was planted in 1948 and began to take root simultaneously on opposite coasts during the 1950’s.

Frustrated by the Giants’ inability to adequately replace retired Mel Hein at center, Head Coach Steve Owen reluctantly conceded to integrate the burgeoning T-Formation into New York’s playbook. The Giants had almost exclusively run the A-Formation for over 15 years, which was Owen’s brain child. Deception and accuracy of the center snap was the key to its success, as the uncertainty of which member of the backfield would receive the ball kept defenses tentative. The T-Formation eliminated that problem as the quarterback received the snap directly from the center.

Owen had a great mind for defensive strategy. He strongly believed in power football and winning on the line of scrimmage, but struggled greatly to keep up with current trends in offensive football. Having recently invested in a quarterback via a trade with Washington, Owen created a position on his staff devoted exclusively for the purpose of tutoring Charley Conerly on the finer points of quarterbacking.

Specialist Allie Sherman received inspiration directly from the source. As a teenager he had read the Rosetta Stone on the subject: “The Modern T- Formation with Man-in-Motion” by Clark Shaughnessy, George Halas and Ralph Jones, and was eager to pass along that knowledge. Conerly had a magnificent rookie season under Sherman’s tutelage, setting a record with 22 touchdown passes for a rookie, which stood for 50 years until it was broken by Peyton Manning in 1998.

Owen, however, was impatient with the T-Formation and never fully committed to it. The Giants frequently reverted to the familiar and comfortable A-formation. After two seasons of decline in 1952 and ’53, Giants management made the difficult decision to relieve Owen of his position. The major impetus behind the move was Paul Brown’s juggernaut from Cleveland that had merged into the NFL from the AAFC in 1950. The Browns dominated the NFL’s American/Eastern Conference with creative offensive concepts that featured passing as a primary weapon. After being passed up for the head coach position for Jim Lee Howell, Sherman left New York and took a coordinator’s position in the CFL.

Vince Lombardi joined Howell’s staff as the offensive coordinator and brought Army Black Knights Earl “Red” Blaik’s T-Formation playbook with him. It was primarily a run-heavy offense, but still versatile. Lombardi added a wrinkle that used Single Wing blocking schemes for the offensive line. The pulling guards led the way for the multi-talented halfback Frank Gifford, and brought the Giants back on equal footing with Cleveland. The two teams clashed for conference supremacy for the next 10 seasons.

Sherman returned to the Giants in 1957 as a scout. When Lombardi departed for Green Bay following the 1958 campaign, Sherman took over the vacated offensive coordinator position. The results were immediate and profound. Conerly, at age 38 and in his 12th season, experienced a renaissance. He led the league in yards-per-attempt while throwing just four interceptions, and the Giants catapulted from 10th in points scored in 1958 to 2nd in 1959. Conerly enjoyed his finest season since his rookie year and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

Integration

Howell retired after the 1960 season and Sherman finally received the head coach position he had coveted. Conerly was two years older now and the wear of 14 years in the NFL was becoming evident. In moves that surprised many, the Giants traded for two veteran players deemed past their prime by their respective Western Conference clubs.

The first move was getting a quarterback who was not much younger than Conerly himself: Y.A. Tittle. The 34-year old passer had begun his career in professional football with the AAFC Baltimore Colts in 1948. When the franchise folded after the 1950 season, Tittle went to San Francisco where he was a member of the 49’ers famed “Million Dollar Backfield” with Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. Tittle’s signature play was the “Alley Oop” pass to receiver R.C. Owens, would run a deep route and attempt to out-leap the defender for the ball. However, new coach Red Hickey installed the shotgun offense in 1961, which was better suited for the younger and more mobile John Brodie.

Despite his age, Tittle still had a very strong arm and was an exceptionally accurate passer. His quick release was regarded as second only to that of Johnny Unitas. Tittle also was a resourceful diagnostician of defenses; he called brilliant games and possessed rare leadership skills. “Here was a 34-year-old quarterback,” Giants president Wellington Mara said. “But we knew he would be a top hand for us. He’s been in the league a long time and he knows defenses and he would fit in with our club real well.”

Next was a trade for a receiver fast enough to get down the field vertically in Del Shofner. Once timed at 9.8 in the 100, Shofner stretched the field like few other receivers from the split end position. Mara said the veteran receiver “fitted a need of ours precisely.”

On-field colleagues agreed with that assessment. Giants veteran receiver Kyle Rote said, “Other receivers may have better moves, but Del has great speed, wonderful hands and good leg drive.” Defender Dick Lynch said, “I couldn’t cover him man on man in 1958 or 1959. I couldn’t cover him in 1960 either. He’s as good as he ever was.”

Tittle was equally impressed, “We both came here at the same time, and we both were traded from West Coast teams. I’d never thrown to someone with the speed he had – along with such a good pair of hands.”

Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants (1961)

Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants (1961)

Tittle and Conerly began 1961 sharing the signal calling duties. The trend was for Conerly to start, then be relieved at some point by Tittle, who was still learning the nuances of Sherman’s complex, detailed system. Following a string of come-from-behind victories the starting job was assumed full time by Tittle. Fullback Alex Webster remembered, “Conerly was our leader. Then, when Tittle came in, we’d never seen anything like him before.” New York won the Eastern Conference, but lost badly in the Championship Game at Green Bay 37-0.

Fruition

Prior to the 1962 season, prognosticators predicted a fall off for the Giants. Sherman recalled a meeting with the press during the pre season, “Some said, ‘It’s a shame, Allie. You’re taking over a club that’s beginning to fall apart from old age.’ The Giants were supposed to be growing old. I could evaluate the performance of the old players over a stretch of three years. I could see how much they had slipped, if they had slipped at all. I could decide which old players to keep and which old players had to be replaced. You can’t replace players wholesale, you know. You have to do it gradually.”

There was turnover on the New York roster though. Conerly and Rote retired. However, one veteran returned from a season-long hiatus. Frank Gifford moved to the flanker position and complimented Shofner’s talents perfectly. The former halfback lacked Shofner’s speed, but he made up for it with elusiveness, deception and sharp route running. Gifford clicked with his new quarterback and complimented both his smarts and ability. “Y.A. is like a high school kid with a Univac brain and a great passing arm,” said Gifford. Shofner and Gifford would exceed 20 yards per catch in 1962.

Y.A. Tittle (14), New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (September 16, 1962)

Y.A. Tittle (14), New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (September 16, 1962)

The first game of the campaign was a disappointment. A limping Tittle tossed three interceptions in an ugly 17-7 loss at rival Cleveland. Potential morphed into results for Sherman’s creative, and sometimes ingenious, offense in Week 2’s impressive passing duel between Tittle and Philadelphia’s young hot shot quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Although Jurgensen finished with the impressive stats: 33-of-57 for 381 yards, the Giants won 29-13 with Shofner hauling in two long touchdown bombs. The following week, Tittle threw for 332 yards and four scoring strikes at Pittsburgh in a 31-27 win.

“[The game] has changed a lot since I came up in 1948,” said Tittle as he reflected on his late career success. “It’s changed a lot since 1953. You spend 10 times as much time on preparation. You go over defenses and reactions and keys and how you read. You learn little things about the other team, or about certain players you didn’t even consider 10 years ago.”

This was the first season the Giants sold out every home game before the season started. The largest crowd to date showed up for the highly anticipated contest with the 4-1 Detroit Lions. The aerial fireworks may have been at a minimum versus the defensive power from the Western Conference, but the game was thrilling nonetheless. Tittle sat our much of first half, after being shaken up on a 1st quarter touchdown run. He returned to the field in second half, and led the Giants to a 17-14 victory. His gritty performance sparked a 9-game win streak.

Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants (1962)

Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants (1962)

Tittle struggled during practice that week, and was a game time decision to dress against the Eastern Conference leading 4-0-2 Redskins. After convincing Sherman he was fit to play, Tittle started poorly, completing only two of his first eight attempts. The Giants trailed 7-0 and faced a third-and-ten on their own 10-yard line when their fortunes turned. Tittle completed a short pass to Gifford for the first down, and a roughing the passer penalty on the defense was added on. Tittle hit on four consecutive attempts afterward, the final being a 22-yard touchdown to Joe Morrison. Tittle led the Giants on two more scoring drives before halftime, and the Giants took a 21-13 lead. Tittle’s already had 236 yards passing and three touchdown passes despite the cold start.

Washington kept the pressure on New York with a quick strike. The first play from scrimmage of the third quarter was an 80-yard Norm Snead-to-Bobby Mitchell touchdown completion, where Mitchell caught the ball, juked his defender and outraced the Giants secondary to the end zone. Tittle answered with a seven-play scoring drive, going five-for-five passing. The Giants led 28-20 and Tittle couldn’t miss. He reached 12 consecutive completions as the Giants lead extended to 35-20. On the next possession Tittle missed on a pass and failed to match Fran Tarkenton’s record of 13 straight. Unfazed, Tittle’s next throw was good for a 63-yard touchdown to Gifford. The Giants lead 42-20 and that lead grew to 49-20 in the fourth quarter on Tittle’s record-tying seventh touchdown pass.

Tittle had a chance to try for an eighth touchdown late in the game. Despite the vocal encouragement from both the Yankee Stadium crowd and Giants teammates, Tittle called for rushing plays to run out the clock in Washington territory, content with the 49-34 victory.

The humble closing belied the superlative virtuoso performance. Tittle completed 27-of-39 attempts, nearly 70%, impressive for any game, but even more so when his bad start is taken into account. The seven touchdowns tied the record shared by Sid Luckman, Adrian Burke, and George Blanda. The 505 passing yards were second only to Norm van Brocklin’s 554, and was just the third 500-yard passing game to-date. Shofner’s 269 receiving yards was the fourth highest single-game total at that time, and remains a Giants’ club record today.

Tittle and the Giants maintained the momentum from that afternoon through most of the season and established new standards across all passing categories as they won the Eastern Conference with a 12-2 record. In the season finale versus Dallas, Tittle threw six touchdowns and established an NFL record with 33 scoring strikes for the season. Unitas had thrown 32 in 1959 and Jurgensen tied that mark in 1961. (George Blanda threw 36 in 1961, but the NFL did not recognize AFL records until after the 1970 merger.)

His 3,224 yards easily eclipsed his team record 2,272 from 1961 and Conerly’s career high of 2,175 in 1948. This mark would stand until 1984 when Phil Simms threw for 4,044 yards in a 16-game season. UPI voted Tittle and the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the season, but the Giants lost the NFL championship game to Green Bay 16-7.

Acclamation

The 1963 season began with Tittle out-dueling Unitas in a come-from-behind thriller in Baltimore. After falling behind 21-3 early in the second quarter, Tittle threw three touchdowns to bring the Giants to within 28-24 at the half. On his third quarter touchdown run to give the Giants the lead at 31-28, Tittle was injured and left the game. Ralph Guglielmi was 0-2 in relief, but the Giants held on for a 37-28 win. The Giants were no match for the Steelers the next week without Tittle and lost 31-0, managing a meager seven first downs.

Y.A. Tittle (14), Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants (October 20, 1963)

Y.A. Tittle (14), Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants (October 20, 1963)

Tittle returned in Week 3 and the offense did not miss a beat. The Giants went 3-1 after that loss, losing at home to unbeaten Cleveland, and never scored less than 24 points. The rematch with the 6-0 Browns was highly anticipated, but the standing room only crowd of 84,213 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was silenced early when Jim Brown fumbled on his first carry and Sam Huff recovered for New York on Cleveland’s 30-yard line. The Giants settled for a field goal, but did not panic. In fact, the game plan was a departure from the usually vertical attack. Sherman’s reigned-in plan charged Tittle with managing the game with pre-snap reads and to win the time-of-possession battle. “We threw out the bomb,” Sherman said. “We never went for the long one. We wanted to control the ball. Short passes and running. That’s what we planned and that’s what we did. We showed how the Browns can be beaten.”

The Giants scored on all five possessions in the first half as Tittle changed the call on almost every play at the line of scrimmage. “They were in an odd line,” Tittle explained. “We expected them to be in a four-three most of the time, so I had to change off. If the crowd had been noisy, I might have had trouble. But they were pretty quiet.”

Tittle’s individual statistics were not flashy: 214 yards on 31 attempts and two touchdowns with one interception. As a team, the Giants totaled 387 yards on 78 offensive snaps; the Browns 142 yards on 38 snaps. Tittle received an ovation from his teammates on the New York bench when he was taken out of the game midway through the fourth quarter and the Giants comfortably ahead 33-0. It was well deserved because his decision making was the critical difference in the contest.

Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants at St. Louis Cardinals (November 3, 1963)

Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants at St. Louis Cardinals (November 3, 1963)

Wisdom and insight continued to serve the veteran signal caller two weeks later when he achieved a statistically perfect game for a passer in a 42-14 win over Philadelphia. Nobody knew it at the time though, the NFL’s contrived formula for passer rating was not rolled out until 1971. Although the formula has its share of critics – in particular the heavy weight it places on completion percentage – it can be a useful tool for determining a quarterback’s passing efficiency. How 16 completions on 20 attempts for 261 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions equals the number 158.3 is not easily explained without a deep background in calculus. Tittle attributed to his success to the variable of time and intuition.

“After every game people ask me questions about how I figured the other team,” he said. “You have to be in the league a long lime and remember things, and at last you get a feel about it. If you could learn it by studying movies, a good smart college quarterback could learn all you’ve got to learn in three weeks and then come in and be as good as the old heads. But they can’t. Because you look at seven or eight different teams each year and they have a different feel and a different look.

“You learn to look for little things. Not obvious things like the linebacker coming right up on the line of scrimmage. But say my tight end is split out a little, maybe four yards from the tackle. The corner linebacker should be right out there with him, playing right in front of him so he can chuck him at the line. But if he has cheated into the gap between the end and the tackle, I read blitz. Or maybe the weak-side safety is intent on the A back—the offensive back on his side. Instead of being relaxed and at ease, he’s crouched over, and maybe unconsciously he’s moved a step or two closer to the line of scrimmage. I read blitz again. That means the weak-side linebacker is coming. He’s the man who would take the A back in a pass pattern, and the weak-side safety is going to have to cover for him, so I read blitz from the way the safety is acting.”

Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants (1963)

Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants (1963)

New York confidently rolled into the season finale at Yankee Stadium with a 10-3 record. Their opponent was second place 7-3-3 Pittsburgh, who could take the Eastern Conference crown with a victory via win percentage (ties did not count in the standings at that time.) A win against the rugged Steelers would require all of Tittle’s tangible attributes: a strong arm, accuracy and experience. The intangible quality of being clutch: exhibiting the uncanny ability to make a big play at a defining moment when the outcome hangs in the balance, would be the catalyst for realization.

Brains and speed combined for New York’s first big strike. Already ahead 3-0, Tittle noticed a change in the defense. After attempting a sideline hookup with Shofner, the Pittsburgh cornerback was cheating toward the boundary, after starting the game playing off Shofner to guard against the split end’s speed. Reading the defender after the snap, Tittle lured him with a pump-fake to the sideline as Shofner streaked past. Tittle lofted a deep arching throw to Shofner who coasted for the 41-yard touchdown.

Shofner left the game in the second quarter with an injury, but the Giants controlled the first half and led 16-3 at the intermission. The Steelers surged in the third quarter and cut the deficit to 16-10 while their defense stifled the Giants’ offense. Faced with a precarious situation, third-and-eight on their own 24-yard line, Tittle collaborated with Gifford to pull New York out of its rut.

Gifford separated from his defender on a deep in-cut as Tittle stood tall in the pocket under a heavy rush. The pass was low and out in front, but Gifford stretched out with one arm. As he attempted to tip the ball to himself, it stuck in his hand, and fell to the ground with it secured for a completion at Pittsburgh’s 47-yard line. “I dived for the ball and I thought, ‘Well we blew it,’” Gifford recalled. “I stuck my hand out just to make the motion of going through with it – and the damn thing stuck in my hand!” While the 63,240 fans in Yankee Stadium erupted in bedlam, Tittle picked himself off the dirt. He never saw the remarkable catch as he was knocked onto his back after the release.

Tittle immediately went back to Gifford on the next play, moving to the Steelers 22-yard line with a sideline completion. The next play was a touchdown pass to Joe Morrison off a play action fake. The Giants regained the two-score cushion 23-10 and momentum that had seemingly been lost. New York held on for the Eastern Conference title with a 33-17 victory. Afterward, there was little doubt on the game’s turning point: “That Gifford catch was the end for us,” Steelers’ Coach Buddy Parker said. “It looked then like we were beginning to pick up and they were sliding. But you could see the whole club come alive after that play.”

The Giants lost the NFL Title Game in Chicago the following week 14-10, but the 1963 season was still a great success. Tittle broke his own NFL record with 36 touchdown passes – and threw a score in all 13 games he played while doing it – a feat that earned him the AP NFL Most Valuable Player award. Including the final game of 1962 and the first of 1964, Tittle threw a touchdown pass in 15 consecutive games, a New York club record that still stands today.

Appendices: Looking over Numbers

Despite playing in New York for only four seasons, Tittle still holds a place of prominence in the Giants annals. He is 17th in games played at 54, but vaults ahead significantly in the categories of performance. He is 7th in passes completed, 6th in passing yards and 5th in touchdowns thrown. Most impressive is his yards-per-attempt of 8.0, which is highest of all Giants passers who attempted at least 250 passes.

When looking over career statistics and assessing a passer’s efficiency, the most useful are yards-per-attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Subjectively, 300-yard passing games are interesting. Usually when a quarterbacks throw for over 300 yards, the win-loss record hovers around .500. Y.A. Tittle was a remarkably undefeated during his Giants’ tenure when reaching that plateau. In essence, when the Giants needed Tittle to carry the team, he delivered. Another good indicator of Tittle carrying the Giants is the number of three-touchdown passing games he had. Tittle had 18 for the Giants in 48 starts – the team record until Phil Simms equaled it, but it took him 154 starts to do so.

YAT STATS1

YAT STATS2YAT STATS3YAT STATS4

Oct 142013
 
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1938 New York Giants celebrate their NFL Championship

1938 New York Giants celebrate their NFL Championship

The 1938 New York Giants

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

Anyone who watched NFL football during the 1980’s and 90’s is undoubtedly familiar with this phrase stated by John Madden, “Big players make big plays in big games.” Many of those “big players” would be later named to his All-Madden team the week prior to the Super Bowl, alongside some lesser known names who displayed characteristics that won the broadcaster over, like toughness, grit and heart. They were lunch-pail types who wore blood on their pants and their jerseys un-tucked. In December 1938 Madden was all of two years old, but there was a football team in New York with players fitting those descriptions, displaying all those attributes and more in the biggest game of the season.

The New Commodity

The quick-strike potential of throwing the football was starting to be realized by the mid 1930’s. Green Bay Packer founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau was one of the early proponents of the passing game, adding regimented passing drills into the team’s practices long before anyone else. His first great passer was Arnie Herber, who assumed the starting job in 1932 after serving as a back-up during the Packers championship seasons of 1930 and 1931. Herber led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns in 1932 and 1934.

The catalyst for Green Bay’s quantum leap in the forward pass arrived in 1935. Don Hutson was the NFL’s first true wide receiver, and his arrival shook the NFL. On the first play of his first game, Hutson caught an 83-yard touchdown pass from Herber, which held up for a 7-0 victory against the Chicago Bears. The Herber-to-Hutson combination was as familiar to sports fans as Montana-to-Rice would be two generations later. The Green Bay passing game was so far ahead of its time, many of the standards Herber and Hutson set lasted 30 years or longer.

Although Hutson possessed good speed, it was the precision of his routes that enabled Lambeau to advance his concepts. Packer practices became a laboratory to experiment with route trees and the response of coverages. Herber loved throwing the long ball, when he and Hutson were in sync, defenses were rendered helpless. From his split wide position, Hutson lead the NFL in touchdown receptions every season from 1935 through 1938. In two of those seasons he also led the league in yards receiving. In 1936 Green Bay led the NFL in scoring and defeated the Boston Redskins in the championship game.

The Redskins relocated to Washington DC in 1937, and beat the Chicago Bears for the championship with a fourth-quarter-comeback by the NFL’s sensational rookie Sammy Baugh. Baugh was more than a great passer; he was a prodigy and became a star attraction for the league. As if to underscore his stature, the NFL created a new rule for the 1938 season: the personal foul for roughing-the-passer penalty was born.

1938 New York Giants Training Camp, Hank Soar with the ball.

1938 New York Giants Training Camp, Hank Soar with the ball.

By 1938, the New York Giants rivalry with the Redskins was white hot. From the time the NFL split into two divisions in 1933 through 1946, the Giants and Redskins battled for the right to represent the Eastern Division in the championship game. The schedule makers took note, and even added a little fuel to the fire by routinely scheduling their meetings at the end of the year, often with the season finale at the Polo Grounds in front of huge crowds. The Giants won the East in 1933, ‘34, ‘35, ‘38, ‘39, ‘41, ‘44, ‘46 and the Redskins in 1936, ‘37, ‘40, ‘42, ‘43 (after a playoff with the Giants) and’45.

Old Indestructible

The New York Giants had a respectable offense in their own right. Ed Danowski led the league in passing yards for the 1935 season, but this was balanced by a powerful rushing attack featuring fullback Tuffy Leemans and halfback Hank Soar. The Giants real strength came from the one player Head coach Steve Owen built both sides of the ball around: Mel Hein.

Hein came to the NFL from Washington State in 1931 with no notoriety at all. It was five years before the first draft and scouting was still largely regional. The Pacific Northwest was a long way from the professional league, whose furthest outpost toward the Pacific Coast was Wisconsin. Hein took it upon himself to write letters of interest to three franchises: the Portsmouth Spartans, Providence Steam Rollers, and New York Giants. Providence offered him a contract for $125 per game and Hein accepted it. However, upon meeting with Giant end Ray Flaherty who told Hein the Giants would pay him $150 per game; Hein wired the post office in Providence to return the letter of acceptance to him so he could get the bigger contract.

Early in his rookie season, injuries to the Giants line necessitated Hein’s promotion to starter, and his iron-man streak of playing 60 minutes in 172 consecutive games began. It did not take long before the rangy Hein made an impression on even the most distinguished opponents. “Even as a rookie in 1931 there was no one like him,” said the Chicago Bears’ George Halas, “Usually you look for the rookies on another team and try to take advantage of them. We tried working on Hein, but from the beginning, he was too smart.” Hein matched his intelligence with grit. Bears tackle George Musso, who outweighed Hein in the vicinity of 40 pounds, gave Hein a blow to his unprotected nose after a snap. He cautioned Musso to knock it off, but the warning went unheeded. Hein said, “So on the following play, I was ready. I snapped the ball with one hand and got him with an uppercut square in the face. I could tell he really felt it. He never tried it again.”

Mel Hein, New York Giants (1940)

Mel Hein, New York Giants (1940)

Hein was the lynchpin in Owen’s versatile A-Formation, which featured the line strong to one side and the backs strong to the opposite side. The uncertainty to which position the snap was directed is what made it effective. Hein’s unerring accuracy was critical. An early admirer of his work was future Hall of Famer, Alex Wojciechowicz. While playing college football at Fordham as one of the famed Seven Blocks of Granite, Wojciechowicz would attend Giants games on Sundays for inspiration. “Hein was my idol,” Wojciechowicz said. “Sometimes there would be only 10,000 at a Giants game at the Polo Grounds after Fordham had outdrawn them by at least two to one, sometimes four to one, but I always went to the Giants games because I wanted to get all the pointers I could get and Mel Hein was my man.”

Many years later, another coaching legend offered his adulation: ”Hein developed techniques of snapping the ball and blocking that have been passed on from center to center ever since,” said George Allen, who regarded Hein as the NFL’s all-time best center.

On defense, Hein was equally impressive. Chicago Bear Bronko Nagurski recalled Hein as being “the surest, cleanest and most effective tackler” he’d ever faced. When he wasn’t delivering a bone jarring hit, Hein was dropping into coverage. He was one of the few players capable of staying with Hutson, and snared 17 career interceptions. Hein was named team captain in 1935, and served in that capacity until his retirement a decade later. In 1938, Hein led a defense that over 11 games surrendered just eight touchdowns and a league-low 79 points in total. Those efforts earned Hein the first Joe F. Carr Trophy as league MVP.

Owen instituted the unique two-platoon system in 1937, where he’d change out nearly complete units of 10 players at the end of the first and third quarters. The lone exception was Hein. “He was too good to take out,” the coach said. Hein never missed a game, and only called a time out once. In 1941 he suffered a broken nose in a game against the Bears. After receiving an adjustment he returned and finished the game.

Hein played 15 seasons for the Giants, a franchise mark matched only by Phil Simms and Michael Strahan. Long after Hein’s playing days had ended, Giants patriarch Wellington Mara reminisced on Hein’s importance. Mara said that Hein was the number one player of the Giants’ first 50 years, and that he was equaled only by Lawrence Taylor.

Even in his final campaign at the age of 36, Mel was still playing every game from the opening kickoff to the final gun. “I can’t prove this with any statistics,” Hein once said, “but I may have played more minutes than anybody in pro football history.” Owen said, “He played longer than any other Giant, and was coached less. Coaching him was like telling Babe Ruth how to hit.”

Oakland Raider founder Al Davis, who worked alongside Hein as assistant coaches at the University of Southern California in the 1950′s, said, “He was truly a football legend and a giant among men. Mel was one of the greatest football players who ever lived.”

The Irresistible Force versus the Immovable Object

Hein and his 1938 New York Giants found themselves atop the NFL Eastern Division in mid November with a 6-2 record. The most satisfying moment for New York thus far was a 10-7 revenge-laced victory at Washington in October (the Redskins had embarrassed the Giants 49-14 in the 1937 season finale at the Polo Grounds.) A quirk in the unbalanced schedule brought Green Bay to the Polo Grounds at 8-2. Their schedule had been uninterrupted, while the Giants had taken two bye weeks in September to accommodate their professional baseball co-tenants.

The Packers brimmed with confidence after defeating their two closest contenders in the Western Division, the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions on the road. The game at Wrigley had been a tense, physical test of will, where the Green Bay defense rose to the occasion. The Packers led 21-17 at the half, and extended to a 24-17 lead in the third quarter. From there, the Packers stout defense held their ground with stand after stand, and kept Chicago off the scoreboard for the win. The final stats were unusually skewed against Green Bay. Chicago held significant advantages in first downs, 16-7, and total yards, 274-178. The 28-7 win at Detroit the following week was a costly one however; Hutson injured his knee and missed the game in New York.

Although still potent as ever on offense, Green Bay was in transition, personnel wise. Herber had shown signs of wear, so Lambeau implemented a tailback-by-committee system. Veterans Herber and Bob Monnett rotated with rookie sensation Cecil Isbell, and the results may have been better than ever. Hutson led the NFL in yards receiving and touchdowns yet again, and Isbell added a new dimension to the Packer attack. He led the team in both passing and rushing, as the Packers led the league in scoring, total yards and plays from scrimmage.

The Giants offense was effective, if somewhat more modest. The only category leaders for New York were halfback/kicker Ward Cuff in field goals and PATs, and tailback Ed Danowski with 70 pass completions. The latter, is somewhat misleading, however. Given that Green Bay’s trio of passers combined for 91 completions as a unit, and despite having the most completions, Danowski was just third in yardage. Defensively New York yielded the fewest points and yards, and while compiling the most interceptions.

The Giants needed that type of balance as they entered the second half of the contest of strengths against Green Bay deadlocked 0-0. Fittingly, the first points scored came on a safety for the Giants defense when full back Clarke Hinkle was tackled in his own end zone. The Packers regrouped, and took a 3-2 lead on a field goal. Green Bay’s offense found a rhythm, and moved the ball deep into Giants territory on their next possession, but missed a field goal attempt. On the Giants first play from scrimmage on the ensuing possession, Leemans slipped around right tackle, followed a block, then cut left and outran the secondary on a 75-yard touchdown gallop that brought the throng of 48,279 in the Polo Grounds to their feet. Green Bay controlled the ball the rest of the way, but the Giants defense put the game out of reach when Hein intercepted a pass and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown, sealing the crucial 15-3 victory.

Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (November 20, 1938)

Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (November 20, 1938)

New York played their local rival Brooklyn Dodgers to a 7-7 tie on Thanksgiving four days later, which meant their final game against the Redskins would decide the Eastern Division title. One of the largest crowds to watch the Giants play to that date, 57,461 rowdy fans showed up in full vocal force to root their team on against Washington, and they were not disappointed. New York thoroughly romped the Redskins 36-0. Although the line score might give the impression the Redskins gave up late, the opposite was true. The more points the Giants scored against their feisty but error prone foe, the more physical and nasty the action became. Every pile became a scrum, with pushing and shoving after the whistle that put the officials under great strain to maintain order. After the teams retired to their respective locker-rooms, the Giants physical condition could easily have caused them to be mistaken as the team on the wrong end of the score. There was very little celebration taking place, as the Giants were, bruised, battered and exhausted. The training staff had their work cut out for them to get their players ready for the championship game.

The Last Men Standing

Aside from Hutson favoring his injured knee, Green Bay arrived in New York rested and ready. The Giants were another story entirely. All Pros Cuff and guard Johnny del Isola sat out of practice all week. Many of the Giants who were able work looked like walking wounded after a disaster, wrapped in assorted bandages and tape. Giants’ trainer Francis Sweeney said, “I don’t think I ever saw so tough a team. They were all determined to play, and if some of them had been private patients, I would have sent them to bed or the hospital.”

Two things the Giants had going for them were their running game and Hein’s unique skill set. Owen devised a defensive plan for the championship game that emphasized patience. The onus was on Hein, whose responsibility was to stay near the line of scrimmage after the snap, diagnose the play, then pursue and tackle the ball carrier.

The crowd of 48,120 was smaller than the turnout for the Redskin game the week prior, but was still big enough to be the largest to attend a title game to that point. The game started as the defensive standoff the Giants had hoped for. An exchange of punts pinned Green Bay on their 12-yard line. New York stuffed rushes on first and second down, and on third down the Packers elected to punt (a common strategy in precarious situations at that time.) Future Giant head coach Jim Lee Howell broke through the line and blocked Hinkle’s punt, which the Giants recovered inside the 10-yard line. Green Bay’s rugged defense held and the Giants settled for a Cuff field goal and a 3-0 lead.

Tuffy Leemans (4) and Ward Cuff (14), New York Giants (1941)

Tuffy Leemans (4) and Ward Cuff (14), New York Giants (1941)

Following the kickoff, New York’s defense held again and blocked another punt, this time Jim Poole deflected an Isbell attempt. Starting from the Packer 30 yard line, fullback Tuffy Leemans caught a Danowski pass then rushed three times before hitting pay dirt from nine-yards out on a counter play for a 9-0 lead. The score held when Johnny Gildea hooked the point after attempt wide left.

Another exchange of punts found the Packers pinned deep in their own end of the field again. Lambeau opted to punt on first down, and the Giants received the ball at mid field with a chance to take a surprising and commanding lead. Disaster struck for New York when Leeman’spass was intercepted by Tiny Engerbresten, giving Green Bay not only the ball in favorable field position, but a much needed reversal of momentum. The Packers took advantage quickly. After rushing for a first down, Herber connected on a 40-yard touchdown bomb to Carl Mulleneaux, trimming New York’s lead to 9-7.

Green Bay seized control of the game. They forced the Giants to punt then began another march that seemed destined to end with another touchdown until full back Ed Jankowski’s fumble was recovered by Hein. New York slugged its way back up the field, until Danowski capitalized with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Charles Barnard, ostensibly giving the Giants a comfortable 16-7 just before halftime. Green Bay had other ideas though. Wayland Becker caught a short pass underneath the Giants soft coverage and navigated his way to a 66-yard gain, stunning the Polo Grounds’ faithful. Hinkle capped the lightning-quick drive with a one-yard plunge for the touchdown.

Despite having a 16-14 lead after 30 minutes of play, Owen felt a sense of dread heading into the locker room. Hein, who uncharacteristically left the game for several moments in the second period after getting kicked in the head, reassured Owen, “It’s working coach. I give them the short stuff and Hutson doesn’t beat us.” Whether Owen took the pep talk from his captain to heart is questionable. Aside from seeing his team manhandled for most of the second quarter, the injury situation worsened as blocking back Lee Schaeffer exited the game with a broken leg.

The third quarter began with Green Bay receiving the kickoff without the gallant Hutson, who rested his aching knee on the bench. Regardless, the Packers continued their surge without their best player, driving into Giants territory and took the lead 17-16 with 15-yard Engerbresten field goal. Gildea was inconsolable on the New York sideline, “All I could think was that my missed kick was going to cost us the title.”

The Giants received the kick off and began from their own 38-yard line. Half back Hank Soar was the featured man, rushing four times on cutback runs against the Green Bay slanting defense for 19 yards. After a sack on Danowski, Soar received a pass that left New York with a 4th-and-1 on the Packer 44-yard line. Owen sensed this might be his exhausted team’s last opportunity for a score and elected to gamble. Soar knifed into the line and fell forward for a two-yard gain to covert, allowing the Giants drive to continue. Five plays later, Soar caught a pass between two defenders in front of the goal posts, and dragged Hinkle across the goal line for a 23-yard touchdown, regaining the lead 23-17. “I was near the goal line, and when I came down with the ball, I had three of four Packers all around me,” said Soar. “Clarke Hinkle grabbed me by one leg, but I pulled and pulled and jerked loose and went in.”

1938 NFL Championship Game, Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (December 11, 1938)

1938 NFL Championship Game, Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (December 11, 1938)

Having already abandoned his normally conservative philosophy, Owen scrapped his platoon system next. He chose his best (and healthiest) 11 players and put them on the field for the duration of the battle of attrition. Green Bay drove to the New York 33-yard line, but their scoring opportunity was thwarted when Danowski intercepted an Isbell pass. An exchange of punts spanned the expiration of the third quarter and left the Giants at their own two-yard line. Danowski punted on first down, but the Giants did not gain much as the play netted only 33 yards.

Hutson returned to the field, and on the first play Green Bay went for the kill, but Cuff broke up Herber’s bomb in the end zone. Following a short run, Herber threw for the end zone but the pass was defended again. On fourth down, Herber completed a pass for the first down, but Becker fumbled and New York recovered.

The Giants could not move the ball and punted again. Green Bay, however, lost possession on an ineligible receiver call. Herber completed a pass to Milt Ganterbein at the New York 40-yard line. However, Ganterbein was ruled ineligible after stepping up to the line of scrimmage, the penalty for which resulted in the Giants receiving possession at the previous line of scrimmage, Green Bay’s 43-yard line. Lambeau vehemently protested the call, but to no avail. The Packers followed that mistake by giving New York’s struggling offense a first down via penalty (their first since Soar’s touchdown catch). The Giants could not capitalize, and missed an opportunity to go ahead by two scores when Cuff’s 36-yard field goal attempt sailed wide.

Isbell took charge for the Packers on their ensuing possession. He passed and rushed the ball to the Giants 46 yard-line, but the New York defense held from there on downs. Soar picked up a rushing first down across the midfield stripe, but the Giants punted for a touchback with just over one minute left on the clock.

After a 16-yard scramble, Herber completed a pass to Mulleneaux, who lateraled to Hutson. With a seemingly clear path to the end zone, Soar caught Hutson from behind, 40 yards away from the end zone. Time remained for just one final play. Owen sent a blitz at Herber, who heaved the ball into the end zone where it fell to the ground incomplete. The Giants were finally able to exhale with the 23-17 lead finally secured.

Not all the Giants were available to celebrate the victory however. Del Isola and Cuff were transported to the hospital with possible fractured vertebrae and Hein for a concussion.

Many Giants gave heroic efforts with their performances; Soar was the most impressive on the stat sheet. His 106 total yards came largely in the second half, 65 yards rushing on 21 attempts and 41 yards on three receptions. He recollected years later, “After [the score giving the Giants the 23-17 lead], Ward Cuff kicked the point and Steve took me out of the game, and he said, ‘I want you to go back in again. You call the plays and don’t call anybody’s plays but your own. You carry the ball every goddamned time.’ Well, they hit me with everything except the stands, and that was because they couldn’t move the stands. It seemed like six years before the clock ran out. I think that game was the biggest thrill as far as football is concerned.”

All the writers covering the game agreed with New York’s hero of the moment. Superlatives reigned supreme in the Monday papers:

Arthur Daley of The New York Times: “The play for the full sixty vibrant minutes was absolutely ferocious. No such blocking and tackling by two football teams ever had been seen at the Polo Grounds. Tempers were so frayed and tattered that stray punches were tossed around all afternoon. This was the gridiron sport at its primitive best.”

Arthur Boer of The International News Service: “It was mostly a barroom fight outdoors. Close to 50,000 innocent bystanders looked upon the resumption of gang warfare in America. It was terrific.”

Jack Mahon of The New York Daily News: “In a story book game that had the crowd roaring from start to finish, the Giants struck fast, built up an early lead, lost it, and surged back through the gathering shadows for a sensational touchdown – and victory! No movie director could have staged a better thriller.”

Owen attributed the victory to his player’s grit and a few small changes in strategy. “They tore us apart and ran through us the other time [the 15-3 regular season meeting], but not this time. Those kids of mine just made up their minds that famous Packer attack was going to be stopped. And how they stopped it!” He also revealed that he had changed the blocking assignments and tendencies on offense, “Then, too, we didn’t throw as many passes as usual. When we found out early in the game we didn’t have to pitch ‘em, well, we just didn’t.”

Those combined elements earned the Giants the distinction of becoming the first team to win two Championship Games, but their highest praise came years later from the man who fretted on the sidelines that day. After his retirement, Owen said the 1938 Giants were, “The finest group I ever coached.”

Oct 012013
 
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Ray Flaherty (1), Mel Hein (7), Butch Gibson (11), Bill Morgan (27), Red Badgro (21), Dale Burnett (18), Bo Molenda (23), Ed Danowski (22), Ken Strong (50), New York Giants (1934) - Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Ray Flaherty (1), Mel Hein (7), Butch Gibson (11), Bill Morgan (27), Red Badgro (21), Dale Burnett (18), Bo Molenda (23), Ed Danowski (22), Ken Strong (50), New York Giants (1934) – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The 1934 New York Giants

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

The New York Giants surprising victory over the Chicago Bears in the 1934 NFL Championship Game is noted in professional football’s lore as “The Sneakers Game.” Most fans today are vaguely aware that the underdog Giants switched to sneakers at halftime, gained better traction on a frozen field and walked off victors after a fourth quarter romp.

What many people do not remember is how dominant the 1934 Bears were and how shocking an upset that game was. The 1934 campaign also served as portent for two future Giants teams: the 1990 and 2007 Super Bowl Champions.

The Streak Starts

The year before the championship run, the Giants dealt the Bears a 3-0 loss in November 1933 at The Polo Grounds. Notable not only as the Bears’ final loss that season, but for the unusually difficult circumstances imposed on Giants FB/K Ken Strong. After being stopped inside Chicago’s 5-yard line, Strong kicked an 11-yard field goal. The Giants were penalized for a false start, Strong was good again from 16 yards, but the Giants were penalized for another false start. The third attempt from 21 yards was good, and after a scoreless second half, the field goal proved to be the margin of victory. The Giants and Bears went on to win their respective divisions in the newly realigned league and met in the NFL’s first official championship game. Chicago won 23-21 in a game that featured six lead changes and ended with a game saving tackle by Red Grange on the final play.

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

There were two major factors responsible for transforming George Halas’ 1934 Chicago squad from very good to almost invincible.  These were the addition of rookie HB Beattie Feathers and the concept of putting a man-in-motion laterally to the line of scrimmage prior to the snap of the ball.

Feathers proved to be the ultimate backfield compliment for the bruising FB Bronko Nagurski. Feathers had speed to get around the ends, and once Nagurski took out the first level of defense, Feathers would kick into the next gear. Feathers was the NFL’s first 1,000-yard rusher that year, gaining 1,004 on only 101 carries, an amazing 9.9 yard-per-carry and a league leading eight TDs. {Feathers also happened to be a bit of an eccentric, he disliked socks and played barefoot in his cleats.} Nagurski brutalized defensive fronts with plunges between the tackles, usually unblocked. Giants Head Coach Steve Owen noted with admiration, “He’s the only man I ever saw who ran his own interference.”

Halas and assistant coach Ralph Jones boasted the NFL’s deepest playbook with over 150 plays. Among the usual wing variations was the T-formation. The T had been around since the early 1920’s, but three things set the Halas/Jones version apart from the standard versions in use at the time: wider splits by the offensive line, the quarterback taking the snap from under center, and the man-in-motion. Defenses were confounded and slow to adapt. Halas recalled years later, “Our modern T-Formation with man-in-motion was the most successful strategy in football. Even so, very few coaches and players yet saw the lessons. They still continued with the wings and boxes. That was fine with me.”

Chicago had more going for them than concepts, they had size. The Bears front line was formidable, outweighing defenses on average by 20 pounds per man. Behemoths George Musso, Link Lyman, and Carl Brumbaugh tromped the opposition. Chicago went 13-0 and outscored their victims by a whopping 286-86 margin, while playing just five games on their home field.

Meanwhile, the 1934 New York Giants started off slowly, dropping their first two games while scoring a meager six points in total. A five-game winning streak saw New York improve incrementally and build confidence. Their first encounter with the Bears came at Wrigley Field, and the Chicago fans watched a 27-7 whipping of the visitors.

The Giants recovered with a hard fought 17-3 win at home versus Green Bay, where TB Harry Newman rushed for 114 yards on an NFL record 39 carries. After the game, Newman quipped that none of the Giants other backs would take the ball from him because Green Bay tackle Cal Hubbard was knocking the stuffing out of them. With their confidence restored, the Giants prepared for a rematch with the Chicago juggernaut.

The Giants enjoyed the support of the largest crowd at the Polo Grounds since the 1930 game versus Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame All Stars. Giants had won 12 straight at home, and lead 7-0 after Ken Strong’s 4-yard run on the first play of 2nd quarter. The Giants added to their lead with a safety after Chicago’s return man fielded the ball on the 1 yard-line, ran backward and was tackled in the end zone. Chicago, however, assumed control of the game with their powerful lines.

The Giants lost their starting TB and leading passer. Newman was injured on a tackle by Bill Hewitt and Musso. Hewitt’s knee hit Newman in the back and he lied motionless on the field for several minutes. X-Rays later revealed two fractured vertebrae, ending his season.

Despite Chicago’s physical dominance, the Giants nursed their 9-0 advantage into the fourth quarter. Nagurski and Feathers churned out yardage on a long touchdown drive to cut the lead to 9-7. The Giants were in position to run out the clock when an untimely error foiled their bid for the upset win. Carl Brumbaugh recovered a Max Krause fumble on the Giants 33-yard line with less than two minutes to play. “Automatic” Jack Manders sealed the Giants fate when he connected on a 24-yard field goal with seconds left on the clock giving the Bears a 10-9 win.

Chicago swept their remaining three games to complete the first undefeated and untied regular season in NFL history (13-0), while the Giants finished 2-1 in their last three games with rookie Ed Danowski ably filling in for Newman. The Giants finished the regular season 8-5. Their season ending loss at Philadelphia was costly. All Pro end Red Badgro fractured his knee cap and would be unavailable for the championship match. The Bears also lost HB Feathers to a shoulder injury.

Mr. Everything

The player the Giants counted on most to shoulder the load with the depleted backfield was FB/LB/K Ken Strong, who incidentally came into the championship game with an injured ankle of his own. Strong was a multi-talented local hero, and graduate of NYU.

The Giants thought very highly of Strong, who boasted many of what would be considered today as “impressive measurables.” He was a powerful runner who ran the 100 in less than 10 seconds and was an effective lead blocker, could kick 45-yard field goals and punt 70 yards. It’s no wonder famed sports writer Grantland Rice selected Strong as an All Time HB alongside the legendary Jim Thorpe.

In 1929, Giants Owner Tim Mara instructed head coach LeRoy Andrews to offer Strong $4,000 to play for the Giants. The duplicitous Andrews offered Strong $3,000 – with the intention of pocketing the difference. Strong signed with the rival Staten Island Stapletons instead. (This unscrupulous practice of skimming player contracts cost Andrews his job during the 1930 season.)

New York Giants Ken Strong Kicking and Bo Molenda Holding in 1934 - Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

New York Giants Ken Strong Kicking and Bo Molenda Holding in 1934 – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Strong also had a promising baseball career on the horizon. The Detroit Tigers thought so highly of him that they traded five players and $40,000 to the New York Yankees for his rights. Unfortunately, while playing in the minors, Strong broke his wrist running into an outfield wall. His surgery was botched when the physician removed the wrong bone from his wrist, ending his baseball career. The Stapletons’ franchise folded after the 1932 season and the Giants were pleased to finally acquire the player they had coveted in time for the 1933 season. “It was a big boost when Strong joined the club”, Giants center Mel Hein recalled, “I had read about him in Grantland Rice’s stories and, frankly, I was a little doubtful when he was compared to Ernie Nevers and Bronko Nagurski. But when I saw him in action I became a believer. He was that good.” Strong’s first season in a Giants uniform was impressive. He led the NFL in scoring as the Giants won the NFL Eastern Division and was named to the All Pro team. He went on to score a touchdown and three extra points for the Giants in their 23-21 loss at Chicago in the NFL’s first championship game.

NFL Championship Game Redux

Noting the state of his team with substitute players at key positions, as well as the prospect of facing an awesome Bears team that had physically battered the Giants twice during the regular campaign, Owen somewhat optimistically said, “I know it doesn’t look so good, but we’ll give ‘em a battle.”

The Giants had high hopes of a record turnout on the heels of the large crowd that had attended the regular season matchup. Six thousand temporary field level seats were installed after box seats had sold out in advance. The Maras had their fingers crossed for a walk-up turnout to fill in the upper deck and bleachers. A nor’easter the night before kept most last-minute ticket buyers at home, but the turnstile count of 40,120 was still quite good for that era.

Jack Mara called Owen early that morning, “It’s bad, you can’t even walk without slipping. I don’t know what we’re going to be able to do.” Upon inspecting the field himself, Owen half-jokingly asked Danowski, “Think you can pass downfield to someone sliding on his belly?” Danowski replied, “With Musso on my neck and me sliding too?”

Once the frozen tarp was pried form the field, the game began with the Giants surprisingly moving the ball down the field. The promising drive ended with Danowski throwing an interception, but the New York defense held its ground. Bo Molenda blocked the Chicago punt and Strong put the first points on the board with a field goal. Chicago reestablished their physical dominance and controlled the remainder of the first half.

1934 New York Giants

1934 New York Giants

If the Giants left the field feeling dejected, as some of the freezing fans expressed their disappointment with boos, the Bears walked off frustrated. Although they lead 10-3, the damage could have been far worse. Nagurski had two touchdowns called back on penalties in the second quarter that were both followed by missed field goals from inside 30 yards – the first Manders misses from that range all season. Aside from Bill Morgan, who Owen would cite for having “played the finest game at tackle I’ve ever seen,” the Giants had been beaten on almost every block on offense. The results on defense were not much better, as Hein said, “Nagurski was three-yarding us to death.”

Few, if any of the Giants, players were aware that help was already on the way. On the advice of End Ray Flaherty, Owen had dispatched part-time equipment man/Manhattan College tailor Abe Cohen on a quest for basketball sneakers to give the Giants better traction on the slick Polo Grounds playing surface. Flaherty had recalled that while playing at Gonzaga his team had switched footwear with great success on a frozen field at the University of Montana.

Cohen arrived in the Giants locker room just before the start of the second half with nine pairs of sneakers, all he could manage to carry. Tackle Bill Owen was the first to try a pair out, and reported to brother Steve that the rubber soled sneakers were an improvement over the plastic-bottomed cleats. Halas was not impressed as he watched the Giants change footwear on the sidelines, and was overheard commanding his players to step on the Giants toes.

The early returns were not immediately apparent however. Strong lost the toe nail from his right big toe when it split in two on the kickoff. Danowski had started the third quarter with his cleats, but after slipping on two rushing attempts he switched to the sneakers. The one Giant able to play well with the cleats was their best player, Hein. Nevertheless, despite the change in footwear, the Bears were able to add a Manders’ field goal during the third quarter and extend their lead. The 13-3 score felt like an impossible deficit to overcome to Tim Mara, who did not foresee the turn of events that were about to unfold, “Everyone was thinking of going home, and to tell you the truth, I was seriously thinking of joining them.”

The tide slowly began to turn the Giants way just before the end of the quarter. Danowski, now with good footing, found a rhythm and completed successive passes to receivers who were able to get separation from slipping defenders. An errant pass was intercepted near the Chicago goal line, but the Giants defense was stout, forcing a punt that Strong returned 25 yards to keep the Giants momentum surging. Danowski completed three short passes, two to Flaherty, one to Strong, and rushed on a keeper, then capped the drive with a 28-yard scoring pass to Ike Frankian, cutting the Bears lead to 13-10.

Danowski intercepted a pass on defense, enabling Strong to exhibit his athletic talents in the game’s pivotal play. As he took the handoff from Danowski toward left tackle, Strong headed upfield, cut to the sideline, reversed field {a move that would’ve been impossible in the cleats} and raced into the end zone for a 17-13 advantage. That 42-yard rushing touchdown remained a Giants post season record until Joe Morris scored from 45 yards in 1986 against San Francisco. Halas exhorted his team to rise to the challenge and reestablish their authority, but one player feebly replied, “Step on their toes? I can’t even get close enough to those guys to tackle them!”

The Bears did finally manage a drive that crossed into New York territory with a heavy dose of Nagurski rushes. On a fourth-and-two, Morgan fought off a block and dropped Nagurski short of a first down. Strong then closed another successful New York drive with an 11-yard sweep around right tackle. Officials paused the game to give the police time to clear delirious fans from the field. When play resumed, Strong was denied his PAT attempt when holder Bo Molenda mishandled the snap and had his drop kick attempt blocked. Following another Giants defensive stand, Danowski finished off the day’s scoring with an 8-yard touchdown run. The 27 point outburst by the Giants remains an NFL fourth quarter post season record to this day.

A secondary hero who remained somewhat in obscurity might have been Giants trainer Gus Mauch. Upon noticing the Giants water buckets had frozen early in the third quarter, he shared whiskey with players in paper cups filled from his flask, ostensibly to keep them warm. After the Giants had taken the lead 17-13 and his flask had emptied, Mauch walked over to the stands for a resupply from patrons. Members of the sideline staff urged Mauch not to give the players any more liquor in fear of them becoming inebriated.

Naugurski attributed the difference late in the game to the footwear provided by Cohen, “They were able to cut back when they were running with the ball and we weren’t able to cut with them. We feel that everyone has to lose some time, but this is a pretty hard time to start. The Giants, though, were a fine ball team and their comeback in that second half was the greatest ever staged against us. Ken Strong, I thought, was the best man on the field.”

The formerly pessimistic Tim Mara was jubilant after the game, “I never was so pleased with anything in all my life. In all the other contests with the Bears, I always have hoped the whistle would blow and end the game. Today I was hoping it would last for a couple of hours.” Although Halas may have known deep-down that the Bears had the better team, he was gracious in defeat, “They deserved to win because they played a great game in that second half. The only bad break we got was when that touchdown was called back in the first half. It would have made the score 17-3 and put us way out in front. My team was under a terrific strain, however, trying to maintain a winning streak which extended over 31 games. After all, we’ve caused a lot of heart-aches, so I suppose we can stand one ourselves.”

Ed Danowski (22), John Dell Isola (2), Ken Strong (50), Len Grant (3), New York Giants (1935) - Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Ed Danowski (22), John Dell Isola (2), Ken Strong (50), Len Grant (3), New York Giants (1935) – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Manhattan College basketball coach Neil Colhanan joined in the Giants revelry, possibly with a slight lament, “I’m glad our basketball shoes did the Giants some good. The question now is, did the Giants do our basketball shoes any good?”

Jul 082013
 
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Graphic images courtesy of Bill Schaefer, artist, and Tim Brulia, historian, of the Gridiron Uniform Database.

Becoming Big Blue – A History of the New York Giants Uniforms

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

1925 – 1936: Basic Beginnings

A fact obscured by history is that the New York Football Giants were anything but the “Big Blue” Giants we root for today. Red was the team’s primary color for the majority of their first 31 years in the NFL, including their entire residence at The Polo Grounds.

When the Giants took the field in Providence to face the Steamrollers, they wore an outfit that looked nothing like the modern uniform system worn by football players today. Most teams in 1925 looked very similar with unadorned brown leather helmets and baggy, tan or beige pants that included hip pads high above the waist. The only distinguishing elements between opponents in this era were the team colors displayed on the jerseys and socks. The Giants wore red bodied jerseys that featured royal blue shoulders and a broad blue band around the body. White block numbers were only on the back of the jersey. The socks were red with the blue band trimmed by white stripes. Midway through the season the helmets changed to white. This uniform set would be the Giants primary look (save for some minor modifications) for the majority of their first eight seasons, including their first NFL Championship in 1927.

A new pair of jerseys were introduced in 1928. One was solid blue, the other solid red. Both featured oval leather patches covering the player’s ribs. The patches on the blue jerseys were plain brown leather, the patches on the red jersey were blue.

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

The Giants added numbers to the front of the jerseys in 1929.

Through these years the Giants rotated helmet styles, often in mid season. The plain brown helmets and white helmets gave way to a red shelled helmet in 1929 that featured a blue crest and blue cross pattern over the crown. The blue banded red jersey returned in 1930 with a white number half in and half out of the band. This was supplemented in 1932 by a similar one that had a small white number centered in the band and trimmed with white stripes. A new helmet was introduced, which featured a blue shell with eight red stripes covering the crown (sometimes called “spider stripes”).

The Giants won their second NFL Championship in 1934, the season they made their first significant uniform overhaul. The new white helmets featured a blue crest and rear base. The red jerseys had a blue collar with white vertical stripes running the length of the sleeves. The side panels were royal blue, and the small white block numbers had a royal blue outline. The pants no longer had the high hip pads, but did have black stripes down the back of the legs (a feature common to many teams of this era). The red socks had blue and white stripes lower down the calf.

Chicago Cardinals at New York Giants (October 27, 1935)

The Giants first white jersey appeared during the 1935 season as an alternate.

After defeating the powerful 13-0 Chicago Bears in the frozen Polo Grounds in the NFL’s second-ever Championship Game, the 1935 Giants supplemented the red jersey with a white one. It was basically a negative of the red version: a white body with red sleeve stripes, blue side panels and red-trimmed blue block numbers. In 1936, this was the Giants full-time jersey, but the new pants, colorful for that season, were royal blue with white and red stripes down the back of the legs, and the socks were white with red and blue stripes.

1937 – 1952: Honing in on an Identity

Following 11 seasons of experimentation and discovery, the Giants began to find what would become their signature look. The helmet was a royal blue shell with a red “Michigan Wing” pattern. The primary jersey was solid red with plain white block numbers. The pants were beige and the socks were solid red. This is what the Giants wore in 1938 when they became the first NFL team to win two Championship Games, defeating the Green Bay Packers in the Polo Grounds, and Center/Linebacker Mel Hein won the NFL’s first MVP Award. A blue alternate jersey and socks were worn occasionally, usually when the Giants opposed a team that also wore red like the Chicago Cardinals or Washington Redskins. This uniform set remained mostly unchanged through the next 15 years, save for a set of grey pants joining the rotation (initially worn with the blue jerseys before becoming full-time), and evolutions in helmet technology.

Blue and red jerseys, along with tan and grey pants, alternated throughout the 1940′s.

In 1948 the “Michigan Wing” was replaced with the Giants final leather helmet. This model featured a more robust base to protect the player for impacts to the side of the head. The base was red, the crown blue with a red cross-pattern. Charley Conerly wore this uniform when he set a rookie record that would last for 50 years: most touchdown passes in a season with 22.

The majority of the NFL changed over to hard, plastic-shelled helmets in 1950. Immediately the Giants found another major component of their appearance: a solid blue shell (navy blue for many decades) with a single, red stripe down the center.

1953 – 1960: The Classic Era

Television began to have an impact on how teams presented themselves on the field so viewership following on black-and-white screens could easily tell the teams apart. More teams instituted the use of a second jersey in their rotation that was white. To accommodate their fans at home, the Giants inverted their primary jersey: red numbers on white with solid red socks. Although the alternate blue jersey would still appear a few times each season, the Giants were primarily a white-at-home team from 1953 through 1956 (including all home games in 1954).

In 1954 the Giants added “Northwestern Stripes” to the sleeves and in 1956 “TV Numbers” to the sleeves and red numbers flanking the red stripe on the back of the helmets. The Giants defeated the Chicago Bears in Yankee Stadium wearing these uniforms, and halfback Frank Gifford was the NFL’s MVP.

The NFL mandated all teams equip their uniform ensemble with two jerseys in 1957: one a primary color and the second white. The Giants took this opportunity to augment their uniforms with more classic features.

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (November 29, 1959)

The Giants were the first team to prominently display player numbers on the front of the helmet in 1957.

The helmets now featured bold, white player numbers both in front and back, and the grey pants had three thin separated stripes, red – blue – red, down the side. This was also the season the Giants became “Big Blue.” The Giants (like most NFL teams) wore their primary color jerseys at home full-time over the next 10 seasons, including two famous games with Yankee Stadium as their back drop in 1958 that created their now iconic look: Pat Summerall booting his 49-yard in the snow against the rival Cleveland Browns to force a playoff to decide the Eastern Conference Champion. Two weeks later the Giants heroically bowed to Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts in the NFL’s first sudden-death Championship Game.

1961 – 1965: Continuing Refinements

Following on the heels of a growing trend, the Giants introduced their first helmet logo in 1961, the lowercase “ny”. For most of their existence, the Football Giants official logo was a Giants sized football player towering over the Manhattan skyline, while they borrowed the varying uppercase, interlocking “NY” logos of the baseball Giants and Yankees for the players and coaches sideline overcoats. Now they had one of their own. The Giants would win the NFL Eastern Division the first three seasons with this new logo, as Y.A. Tittle set team and NFL records that would last over 20 years. The pants also had a new stripe pattern, two slightly broader red stripes.

Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, New York Giants (1958)

Vince Lombardi wearing the Yankees “NY” and Tom Landry wearing the Baseball Giants “NY” in 1958.

In 1962 the pants stripes changed again, three contiguous red-blue-red stripes. The “Northwestern Stripes” were removed from the white jerseys in 1964.

Red remained the prominent accent color on the Giants white uniforms through the 1965 season.

1966 – 1974: Red Takes a Back Seat

The Giants made some significant changes in 1966. The home uniform did not change much. The helmet and blue jersey did not change, but the pants were now white with a reversed blue-red-blue stripe pattern.The away uniform featuredwhite jerseys with blue numbers, the sleeves had a broad blue-red-blue stripe pattern that matched the pants. White socks with that same stripe pattern were worn through 1967, when this was the Giants uniform of choice for home games.

Minor changes for the 1968 season included solid blue socks worn with the white jersey, and the helmet numbers changed to a thinner but much larger font (to the point where the players’ numbers were almost as prominent as the “ny” logo). Along with the rest of the league, the Giants wore “NFL 50” shield patches on their jersey shoulders the shoulders of their jerseys for the 1969 season.

Fred Dryer, New York Giants (December 21, 1969)

Large helmet numbers, white pants, and the “NFL 50″ shield patch were part of the Giants look in 1969.

In the early 1970’s many NFL teams had two jersey sets of jerseys. One was durene, for cold weather games and the other mesh. Often there were differences between the two. For the Giants, the noticeable difference was the sleeve stripes. The durene jersey was unchanged, 3/4 length sleeves with broad stripes, until it was eventually phased out after the 1972 season. The mesh jersey had thinner blue-red-blue stripes at the bottom of the short sleeve and was a permanent away jersey through 1974.

1975 -1979: Stripes and Logos

The Giants appeared to experience a bit of an identity crisis during the mid to late ‘70’s. To say the uniforms were a drastic departure from the norm is an understatement.

In an attempt to appear more modern, the classic “ny” was replaced with a double-line, uppercase “NY”. White stripes bracketed the helmet’s red center stripe, and the player’s numbers were removed from the front of the helmet.

Doug Kotar, San Diego Chargers at New York Giants (November 1, 1975)

The uniform overhaul of 1975 was a radical departure from the Giants traditional look.

The blue jersey had a five-stripe pattern, two broad white stripes flanked by three thin red stripes, and the white numbers had red trim. The pants had an extra-wide blue stripe that was bordered by two red stripes. The blue socks had a matching stripe pattern as the sleeves for most of the season, until they were replaced late in the season by a white sock with a somewhat inverted blue-red-blue-red-blue pattern.

The white jerseys were a negative version of the blue, and were worn with the Giants first set of blue pants in 40 years. The white socks worn with the blue pants had a set of stripes that matched the sleeves stripes.

Phil Simms, New York Giants (October 14, 1979)

The Giants uniforms of the late ’70′s featured an abundance of stripes.

The “NY” helmet logo was short lived. In 1976, when the team first stepped onto the field at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, they had another new logo, the italicized and underlined “GIANTS”. It was somewhat reminiscent of the simpler “ny” of the Yankee Stadium era, though the rest of the uniform was not. Some refinements and changes occurred with the socks during the next four seasons. Stripe patterns inverted, white socks were interchanged with red ones (worn with the blue pants only), before blue was settled on permanently in 1977. In 1979 the blue pants were gone and the socks were adorned with an 11-stripe white-red-white pattern.

1980 – 1999: Revision and Stability

Simplicity returned in 1980 as the New York Giants uniforms reflected their early 1970’s look but still retained a modern feel. The white stripes were removed from the helmets and the socks were once again solid blue. The blue jerseys had red-white-red piping along their V-necks and sleeve cuffs. The white pants returned to their familiar blue-red-blue pattern. The blue jerseys had a blue-red-blue pattern. This basic uniform, save for minor number font changes and ceremonial patches, would go unchanged for 20 years. The Giants worn white-at-home for the entire 1980 season, before settling on blue for good, andwould wear those blue jerseys as they won Super Bowls XXI and XXV following the 1986 and 1990 seasons.

Mark Bavaro, New York Giants (September 21, 1986)

The Giants first full-season memorial patch was the “Spider 43″ worn during the championship year of1986.

Variations occurred that served as memorials – black shoulder stripe was sewn onto the jerseys in 1983 in honor of late RB Coach Bob Ledbetter, and the “Spider 43” patches worn during Lawrence Taylor’s MVP 1986 season (with a white background on the blue jersey and a blue background on the white jersey), or anniversaries – the Super Bowl XXV patch, the “NFL 75” patch in 1994, and the Giants “75th Silver Anniversary” patch in 1999.

The entire NFL wore throwback uniforms in 1994. The Giants chose replicas of their 1962 season, and they were mostly authentically replicated. White pants were used with the blue jerseys instead of the traditional grey, changed at the last moment at the league’s behest.

2000 – 2013: Echoes of the Past

Similar in theme to the previous uniform overhaul, the Giants looked to the past while still maintaining a current feel. A mostly traditional “ny” logo returned to the helmet (it was slightly larger and bolder than the original), as well as the player numbers (now block style matching the jerseys). The matte, navy blue shell was now a metallic royal blue.

The blue jerseys were free of all striping and the numbers were solid white. Given the trend of constantly shortening sleeves, the “TV numbers” moved up to the shoulders. The pants were grey but kept the blue-red-blue stripe pattern. The white jerseys had red numbers again, but now featured blue trim. Solid red socks were worn with the white jersey through 2001, when the Giants added a white “GBY” patch for the late George Young. The Giants wore an “80th Anniversary” patch on the blue jerseys for the 2004 season, and also the new alternate red jersey they would wear once each season the next four years.

Jessie Armstead, New York Giants (September 30, 2001)

The Giants have featured a classic-but-modern look since 2000.

New retro white jerseys were introduced for the 2005 season. Plain red block numbers were accompanied with “Northwestern Stripes” on the sleeves. Two memorial patches were worn to honor the passing of owners Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch. The grey pants worn with the white jerseys also had the thin, separated red-blue-red stripes last worn in 1960. These are the uniforms the Giants wore when they twice upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI following the 2007 and 2011 seasons.

These pants received a full-time road designation and were also worn with the blue jersey during away games beginning in 2009, before they became the Giants sole pants in 2012. An alternate set of white pants, with an inverted blue-grey-red-grey-blue stripe pattern, was introduced in 2013 and were worn on occasion with the blue jerseys. A 90th anniversary patch will be worn on both jerseys for the 2014 season.

(To see the Giants uniform history in greater detail, please see the Giants page at the Gridiron Uniform Database.)