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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left End – Red Badgro (1930-35)

  • HOF Class of 1981

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

Left Tackle – Frank Cope (1938-47)

  • All-Decade Team 1930’s

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

Honorable Mention – Bill Morgan (1933-36)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1935

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

Honorable Mention – Len Grant (1930-37)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1931, ‘32

Started in the first three NFL Championship Games. Team captain in 1936. Strong and agile. Inspirational leader.

Left Guard – John Dell Isola (1934-40), Assistant Coach (1957-59)

Started at center, moved to guard. Great run blocker on offense. Courageous performer in 1938 NFL Championship Game. Vicious linebacker on defense. Instinctive and competitive player. Very physical.

Center – Mel Hein (1931-45)

  • All-Decade Team 1930’s
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • NFL All-Time Two-Way Team
  • HOF Class of 1963
  • NFL MVP 1938
  • #7 retired 1963
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1934, ’35, ’38, ’39, ‘40

One of the finest centers ever to play football. Was also a fantastic middle guard/linebacker who could impact the course of a game. Had the speed to cover ends like Don Hutson while making bone-jarring tackles of power backs such as Bronko Naguski. Had an interception return for a touchdown in a key late-season victory over Green Bay in 1938. The NFL’s version of Lou Gehrig: a true 60-minute player who never left the field during Steve Owens’s two-platoon system. His 15 seasons played have only been matched twice in Giants history. Combined great stamina, mental alertness, and superior athletic ability to become an exceptional star. Giants captain for 10 seasons. Linchpin of the A-Formation’s success. Powerful and intelligent, exceptional at angle blocking defenders. Defensively, had a knack for interceptions, and Owen said Hein was the best tackler he had ever coached.

Right Guard – Len Younce (1941, 1943-44, 1946-48)

  • All-Decade Team 1940’s
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1944

The New York Giants selected Younce in the eighth round of the 1941 NFL Draft. Played six seasons on the offensive line, helping the team reach the NFL Title game three times. Strong run blocker. Also played linebacker, and handled punting and placekicking duties at times. Set the Giants record for longest punt with a 74-yard effort in 1943 which lasted 58 years. Returned an interception for a touchdown versus the Steagles in 1943, led the league in punting yards in 1944, and made 36-of-37 extra-point attempts in 1948. Finished his career with 10 interceptions.

Right Tackle – Al Blozis (1942-44)

  • All-Decade Team 1940’s
  • #32 retired 1945
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1943

Considered to be on his way to becoming an all-time great before being killed in WWII, possibly a Pro Football HOF talent. Possessed tremendous strength and athleticism. As a rookie in 1942, had a one-handed sack of Sammy Baugh. Coach Steve Owen told Wellington Mara, “He’ll be the best tackle who ever put on a pair of shoes.” Hein, who played alongside Blozis on offense and behind him on defense, said, “If he hadn’t been killed, he could have been the greatest tackle who ever played football. I felt comfortable having him next to me. He was real strong and real fast. He made tackles all over the field. He was good his first year; the second year he was great.”

Honorable Mention – Cal Hubbard (1927-28, 1936)

  • HOF Class of 1963
  • All-Decade Team 1920’s
  • NFL All-Time Two-Way Team
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1927

A stalwart of the 1920’s era. Key member of the 1927 Giants who outscored their opposition 177-20. 6’5”, 250 pounds, ran the 100-yard dash in 11 seconds. Powerful blocker, destroyed opposing lines. Sometimes used on tackle-eligible pass plays. Given pursuit responsibility on defense. Steve Owen said, “He was fast and hit like a sledgehammer.”

Right End – Ray Flaherty (1928-29, 1931-35), Player/Assistant Coach (1935)

  • HOF Class of 1976
  • #1 retired 1935
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1929, ‘32

The Giants first team captain. Led the NFL in receptions, yards, and touchdown receptions in 1932, the first year statistics were officially recorded. Had very good speed and made big plays. An excellent defensive player. Suggested the Giants switch to sneakers during the 1934 NFL Championship Game. Served double-duty as player/coach for two games during the 1933 preseason while Steve Owen tended to his wife with a terminal illness, and was a player/coach for the full 1935 season.

Honorable Mention- Jim Poole (1937-41, 1945-46)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1939, ‘46

Large player for his era. Crashing end on defense and strong blocker on offense. Reliable receiver. Blocked two punts in the 1938 NFL Championship Game. Led Giants in receptions in 1946. Cited by Steve Owen as one of the best the Giants ever had.

Tailback – Ed Danowski (1934-41)

  • First-Team All-Pro 1935, ‘38

Led the NFL in passing yards and efficiency in 1935. Had the best touchdown-interception ratio of his era, was also a consistent rusher and was a good punter. Won two NFL Championships as starting tailback. Passed and ran for touchdowns in 1934 NFL Championship Game versus Chicago in 1934. Threw winning touchdown in NFL Championship Game versus Green Bay in 1938. Has the longest Giants punt in a post-season contest.

Honorable Mention – Benny Friedman (1929-31)

  • HOF Class of 2005
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1929, ‘30

The NFL’s first great passer of the 1920’s. Helped to attract the public’s attention to the pro game with his passing highlights featured in newsreels. Also a premier ball-carrier who ran with power. The Giants scored 312 points in 1929 (no other team even scored 200) with Friedman setting an NFL record with 20 touchdown passes. He also rushed for two touchdowns and led the NFL in point-after-touchdowns. Intelligent player/coach. Was in line to become the Giants head coach in 1932 but left the team following a contract dispute.

Halfback/Wingback – Ken Strong (1933-39, 1944-47), Assistant Coach (1940, 1961-65)

  • All-Decade Team 1930’s
  • HOF Class of 1967
  • #50 retired 1947
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1933

One of the most versatile players of his era: triple-threat rusher, receiver, and passer from the backfield. Place kicked and punted. Vicious blocker – considered one of the best of his era. Also one of the best defensive players of his era. Accurate straight-ahead kicker. Scored 17 points, an NFL Championship Game record that stood for almost 30 years, including two fourth-quarter touchdowns in the 1934 NFL Championship Game versus the undefeated Bears. Returned to Giants as place-kicking specialist in 1940’s. Served as kicking coach after playing career ended. Led the NFL in scoring in 1933 and retired as the Giants all-time scoring leader. Has the Giants longest punt return in a post-season game. Also scored on a 42-yard touchdown reception from Ed Danowski in the 1935 NFL Championship Game. Retired as the NFL’s all-time leading scorer.

Honorable Mention – Ward Cuff (1937-45)

  • #14 retired 1946

Never missed a game in 15 years. His 170 regular-season games still ranks 10th all-time for the Giants. Also played in eight championship games and one divisional playoff. Multi-positional player: halfback, wingback, defensive halfback. Also punted and place kicked. Led second-half effort in Giants 1938 NFL Championship Game. Led the Giants in receiving yards twice, the NFL in field goals three times, and the NFL in PAT’s once. Scored on a then-team record 96-yard interception return in season-finale versus Washington in 1938. Solid blocker as a wing back, fast enough to run a reverse, excellent coverman on defense. Exceptional straight-ahead kicker who left the team as New York’s all-time leading scorer.

Fullback – Tuffy Leemans (1936-43), Assistant Coach (1943-44), Player/Assistant Coach (1943), Assistant Coach (1944)

  • All-Decade Team 1930’s
  • HOF Class of 1978
  • #4 retired 1943
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1939

Led the NFL in rushing in 1936. Threw 25 TD passes over career during regular season, one in 1939 NFL Championship Game. Retired as the Giants career rushing leader in 1943. Scored a touchdown in 1938 NFL Championship Game versus Green Bay. Steady defensive player. Commissioner Bert Bell: “Leemans makes all tacklers look bad.” Fierce competitor, played through injuries. Known by fans as “Mr. Giant.” Strong short-yardage back with break-away speed. Also lead the Giants in passing as the A-Formation tailback in 1941 and 1942.

Honorable Mention – Hank Soar (1937-44, 1946)

Multi-position player on offense; outstanding defensive halfback and safety. One of Steve Owen’s favorite players. Called the Giants defenses, which led the NFL in fewest points allowed four times during his career. Scored the winning touchdown in the 1938 NFL Championship Game. Led Giants in rushing in 1937.

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

Versatile offensive player with speed and agility. Blocked and handled the ball well. Owen cited Burnett as one of the best pass catching players of his era. Very good in coverage on defense. Returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown (a team record at the time) in a late-season win versus Green Bay in 1933. At the time of his retirement, his 86 receptions and 25 touchdowns scored were franchise records.

Leather helmets, the Single Wing, and six-man defensive lines were relegated obsolete by the middle of professional football’s most romanticized decade – the 1950’s. Pocket protection, men-in-motion, and coordinated defenses attracted a new, more analytical audience. Nevertheless, the game was still as physical as ever as the NFL signed its first network television contract with DuMont in 1953.

In 1951, interior linemen were no longer permitted to run interference downfield on pass plays. Offensive strategies calibrated their timing and exploited space as they attacked further away from the line of scrimmage. Defenses responded by emphasizing athleticism over brute force. In 1954, all players entering the league were required to wear facemasks, even if some of them were Lucite.

Schedules were better organized as teams played a set 12-game schedule that featured round robins within their respective conference and rotations with half the teams in the other conference. As the league prospered, player salaries gradually increased. Coaches deepened preparation with film study, scouting, and staffs that now had coordinators and position coaches. The players unionized with the formation of the NFL Players Association in 1956.

The 1960’s was a decade of expansion. New teams joined the NFL as it competed with the new AFL. A league-wide television deal was finalized in 1961 ensuring that every game would be broadcast. That same season, the 14-game schedule was introduced. In 1965, the game-day officiating crew increased from five to six when the Line Judge was added.

By the end of the decade, defenses gained the advantage over complex offenses by employing more involved strategies of their own – lateral movement, play recognition, and zone coverages were a part of every defensive scheme. For the first time in three decades, scoring was on the decline.

Part of the reason for a decrease in offensive touchdowns was a quantum leap in the quality of place kicking. The new breed of soccer-style kicking had an immediate impact on the game. In 1968, the NFL experimented during the preseason by not allowing teams to kick the point-after-touchdown during inter-league NFL-AFL matchups. Instead, teams had to run a play from scrimmage.

Following the AFL-NFL merger, two waves of drastic changes to tip the advantage back to the offense were implemented by the rules committee. The first came in 1974. Kickoffs were moved back from the 40-yard line to the 35-yard line and the goal posts were moved back from the goal line to the end line. The penalty for offensive holding was reduced from 15 yards to 10 yards. Also, a 15-minute overtime period was added to regular season games, making the anti-climactic tie games a rarity. Rosters grew past the 40-player plateau and reached 43 by 1977. The age of specialization was dawning.

The New York Giants who played during this era may have only claimed one world championship of their own, but they were just as talented as the players from the other two eras. They grew with the times and gained their own unique recognition as professional football ascended to the forefront of public consciousness. There are more Giant players and coaches enshrined in Canton from this era than any other.

Pro T / Two-Platoon Era (1950 – 1977)
Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), Alex Webster (29), New York Giants (November 13, 1955)

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), Alex Webster (29), New York Giants (November 13, 1955)

Head Coach – Jim Lee Howell (1954-60), Right End (1937-42, 1946-47), Assistant Coach (1949-53)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Played end and coached ends under Steve Owen. Blocked a punt in the 1938 NFL Championship Game. As head coach, led the Giants to three Eastern Conference titles and the 1956 NFL Championship. Never had losing season as head coach. Was the first head coach to explicitly delegate authority to offensive and defensive coordinators, which gave rise to the modern coaching staff.

Offensive Coordinator – Vince Lombardi (1954-58)

  • Pro Football HOF Class of 1971

Implemented modern T-Formation offense with the Giants. Made the sweep his signature play. Helped make stars of Roosevelt Brown and Frank Gifford. The Giants ranked in the top three in the NFL for fewest turnovers in four of his five seasons as coordinator.

Defensive Coordinator – Tom Landry (1956-59), Defensive Halfback/Punter (1950-55), Player/Assistant Coach (1951-53), Player/Defensive Coordinator (1954-55)

  • Pro Football HOF Class of 1990
  • First-Team All-Pro 1954

Intelligent player, sure tackler. Served as player/coach and quasi-coordinator under Steve Owen. Revolutionized how defensive football is understood and coached. Emphasized charting tendencies and reading keys. Holds Giants record with an interception in seven consecutive games. The first Giant to return interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games. Was an excellent punter and occasionally played as T-Formation quarterback. Returned punts and kickoffs. Owen called him “the quarterback” of the defense. The Giants defense led the NFL in fewest yards allowed 1956 and 1959 and the fewest points surrendered in 1958 and 1959. The 1954 Giants defense led the NFL in takeaways.

Split End – Del Shofner (1961-67)

  • All-Decade Team 1960’s
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1961, ’62, ‘63

The Giants first 1,000-yard receiver. Holds team record with 269 receiving yards in a game. Second highest yards-per-reception in team history (18.1) for a player with over 150 catches. Had four games where he scored three touchdowns, a team record. 13 career 100-yard receiving games.

Honorable Mention – Homer Jones (1964-69)

NFL’s all-time leader in yards-per-reception (22.3). Holds team record with 13 touchdown catches in a season. Fifth all-time for Giants in receiving yards and touchdowns. Led the NFL with 13 touchdowns in 1967. 10 touchdowns of 70 or more yards are the most in Giants history. Seventeen 100-yard receiving games second most in team history.

Left Tackle – Roosevelt Brown (1953-65), Assistant Coach (1967-70), Scout (1971-2003)

  • HOF Class of 1975
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1956, ’57, ’58, ’59, ’61, ‘62

Starting left tackle for 13 consecutive seasons. Played in nine Pro Bowls. Tremendously strong drive blocker with the speed and athleticism to run interference downfield and on sweeps. Played defense in short yardage and on the goal line. Was only the second modern era offensive lineman enshrined in the Pro Football HOF.

Honorable Mention – Willie Young (1966-75)

Came to Giants as a defensive tackle, switched to offense during second season. Somewhat undersized but strong, quick, and athletic. Appeared in 135 games.

Left Guard – Darrell Dess (1959-64, 1966-69)

Excellent pass blocker who was adept at pulling to lead sweeps. Smart and efficient player who was able to block and control larger defensive opponents. Played in 120 games.

Honorable Mention – Bill Austin (1949-50, 1953-57), Assistant Coach (1979-82)

Appeared in 75 games. Began as a two-way player before being permanently entrenched at offensive guard. Was a key component in the Giants Power-T formation in the mid 1950’s pulling on sweeps. Started in the 1956 NFL Championship Game.

Center – Greg Larson (1961-73)

Versatile – started at tackle and guard before moving to center. Tough player who led by example. Returned from a severe knee injury in 1964 and played in the 1966 Pro Bowl. Played in 179 games.

Honorable Mention – Ray Wietecha (1953-62)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1958

Retired with Giants team record 133 consecutive games played. Quick and aggressive. Referred to by Allie Sherman as “the quarterback up front.” Made the challenging transition from A-Formation center to T-Formation center.

Right Guard – Doug Van Horn (1968-79)

Steady performer at multiple positions. Giants team captain in 1976. Great technician who used quickness and footwork to redirect opponents. Played in 172 games with 169 starts.

Right Tackle – Jack Stroud (1953-64)

Tough, multi-position performer. Played through injury and was respected by both teammates and opponents. Athletic, excelled as a pass-blocking tackle and pulling guard on sweeps. Was the Giants offensive captain. Appeared in 132 games.

Tight End – Bob Tucker (1970-77)

Led the NFC in receptions 1971. Sure-handed receiver. John Mara: “Bob was revolutionary for his time.” Was a very reliable performer despite playing with numerous quarterbacks throughout his career. Had five 100-yard receiving games.

Flanker – Kyle Rote (1951-61)

Giants team captain. Adept at underneath routes to covert third downs. Started as a halfback, but knee injury necessitated change of position after rookie season. Combined power, polish, and determination in all his roles. Franchise touchdown-receiving record stood for 47 years.

Honorable Mention – Joe Morrison (1959-72)

  • #40 retired 1972
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Played six different positions over 14 years with the Giants, including defensive back. Retired as the team franchise leader in receptions and receiving yards. Holds team record with touchdown receptions in seven consecutive games. As a receiver, third all-time team leader in catches, fourth in yards, and third in touchdowns.

Halfback – Frank Gifford (1952-60, 1962-64)

  • HOF Class of 1977
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • NFL MVP 1956
  • #16 retired 2000
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1955, ’56, ’57, ’59

One of the most versatile athletes ever to wear a uniform. The only player in NFL history to play in the Pro Bowl on offense and defense, and at three different positions: defensive halfback, halfback, and flanker. Retired as the Giants all-time leader in all-purpose yards. Scored the most touchdowns in Giants history (34 rushing, 43 receiving, one interception return). Also threw 14 touchdown passes, kicked 10 point-afters, and two field goals. Scored touchdowns in three NFL Championship Games. Holds team record for touchdowns in 10 consecutive games. Led the NFL in all-purpose yards in 1956 and retired with team record 9,862 all-purpose yards.

Fullback – Alex Webster (1955-64), Assistant Coach (1967-68), Head Coach (1969-73)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2011

Inspirational leader who often played through injury. Great runner who became a reliable blocker and receiver. Retired as the Giants all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns (still ranks fifth in both). Scored two touchdowns in the 1956 NFL Championship Game versus the Chicago Bears. Retired as the Giants third all-time leading receiver in catches, fourth in yards, and fifth in touchdowns.

Quarterback – Charlie Conerly (1948-61)

  • #42 retired 1962
  • NFL MVP 1959
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Retired with all Giants major passing records. Started as tailback in A-Formation. Set NFL record for passing touchdowns for a rookie in 1948 – a record which stood until 1998. Quietly tough, led by example. The Giants leading passer for 12 consecutive seasons. At the time of his retirement, his 14 years of service were second only to Mel Hein’s 15. His single-season records of touchdowns passing and yards passing stood until Y.A. Tittle broke them. Threw two touchdown passes in the 1956 NFL Championship Game and rushed for the game’s only touchdown in the 1958 Eastern Conference Playoff versus Cleveland.

Honorable Mention – Y.A. Tittle (1961-64)

  • HOF Class of 1971
  • #14 retired 1965
  • NFL MVP 1961, ‘63
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1962,’63

The quality of his quarterbacking over a three-year span has never been surpassed in team history at a time when his career was thought to be finished. Set the NFL single-season passing touchdown record in 1962 and surpassed it in 1963, a record that lasted until 1984. Led the Giants to three consecutive Eastern Conference titles. Set Giants record for passing yards in a season in 1962, which lasted until 1984. Exuberant leader. His 18 games with three touchdown passes were a team high at the time of his retirement. Was the first Giant to achieve a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in 1963.

Weakside End – Andy Robustelli (1956-64), General Manager (1974-78)

  • HOF class of 1971
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1956, ’58, ’59, ‘60

Leader of the Giants defenses of the late 1950’s and early ’60’s. Masterful pass rusher with a variety of moves. Saved his best for big plays near the end of games. Unofficially had 79 career sacks. Served as player/coach in 1962-64. Supplied the entire Giants team with sneakers for the 1956 NFL Championship Game.

Defensive Tackle – Arnie Weinmeister (1950-53)

  • HOF Class of 1984
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1950, ’51, ’52, ‘53

Combined speed, power, and a relentless desire to become one of the most disruptive players from the defensive tackle position in history. One of the first defensive players to cultivate fan interest and gain notoriety. Keen instincts, diagnosed plays at the snap. Sometimes unstoppable interior pass rusher. Talents allowed Steve Owen to drop ends into coverage in the Umbrella Defense.

Honorable Mention – Dick Modzelewski (1956-63)

Stabilizing force in the middle of the defense. Strong and smart, covered multiple gaps. Steady performer who excelled in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Defensive Tackle – John Mendenhall (1972-79)

Stout run defender who also provided consistent interior pass rush. Unofficially had 39.5 career sacks, including 11 in 1974 and 10 in 1977. Harry Carson: “He made me look good. He was hard to block, he was very quick. We played off each other.”

Honorable Mention – Roosevelt Grier (1955-56, 1958-62)

  • First-Team All-Pro 1956

One of the first large tackles, out-weighing most offensive linemen. Physically became the prototype. Sometimes an inconsistent performer, but on his good days was among the best of his era and would wreak havoc on the opposition.

Strongside End – Jim Katcavage (1956-68)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1961, ‘63

Physical player – the perfect book end for counterpart Andy Robustelli. Penetrated the line and redirected plays back inside. Has the most defensive fumbles recovered in Giants history and the most safeties with three (the latter also an NFL record). Unofficially had a 7-sack game and 96.5 over his career.

Weakside Linebacker – Harland Svare (1955-60), Defensive Coordinator (1961, 1967-68)

Tough, quick, aggressive, smart. Served as player/coach in 1960.

Middle Linebacker – Sam Huff (1956-63)

  • HOF Class of 1982
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1958, ‘59

Anchored the Giants great defenses that won six Eastern Conference titles and the NFL Championship in 1956. Elevated the stature of defensive players in fan consciousness with one-on-one confrontations with Jim Brown and Jim Taylor. Was the prototypical middle linebacker in Tom Landry’s intricate defense. Took full advantage of every opportunity the opposition allowed him. Powerful run stuffer. Also provided good coverage skills evidenced by 18 interceptions. Scored four return touchdowns (two interceptions and two fumbles).

Strongside Linebacker – Brad Van Pelt (1973-83)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2011

Excelled in pass coverage, had 18 career interceptions. Played in five Pro Bowls and was named Giants Player of the Decade of the 1970’s. Also played on special teams throughout entire career.

Cornerback – Erich Barnes (1961-64)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1961

Aggressive, physical player and a good athlete. Occasionally played split end on offense – caught a 62-yard touchdown pass from Y.A. Tittle in 1961. Has the longest touchdown in franchise history – a 102-yard interception return in 1961 (which at the time tied the NFL record.)

Cornerback – Dick Lynch (1959-66)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1963

Savvy player. A strong tackler in run support. Excelled in man-to-man coverage. Led the NFL in interceptions twice. Tied for first with most interception returns for touchdowns in Giants history, including team-record three in a single season. Had three games with three interceptions.

Weakside Safety – Emlen Tunnell (1948-59), Scout (1962, 1974-75), Assistant Coach (1963-1973)

  • HOF Class of 1967
  • All-Decade Team 1950’s
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010
  • First-Team All-Pro: 1951, ’52, ’55, ‘56

The Giants first African-American player. Retired as the NFL’s career-leader in interceptions. Tied for first with most interception returns for touchdowns. In 1952, he had more return yardage on punts and interceptions than the NFL’s rushing leader. Incredible ball instincts, soft hands, fluid moves. Played offense as well in first two seasons. A key to the Umbrella Defense’s success. Was the only defender permitted to freelance through zones. Sure tackler. The first full-time African-American scout and assistant coach in pro football. The first African-American enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in interceptions and interception yards.

Honorable Mention – Carl “Spider” Lockhart (1965-75)

Hard hitter and sure tackler despite lack of size. One of only three Giants to return interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games. Third in Giants history in career interceptions and second in defensive fumbles recovered. Also returned punts.

Strongside Safety – Jimmy Patton (1955-66)

  • First-Team All-Pro: 1958, ’59, ’60, ’61, ‘62

A stalwart of the Giants secondary. Consistently solid and occasionally spectacular performer. Second in team history with 52 career interceptions, and tied for first with 11 in a single season in 1958, which led the NFL. Fearless player and strong tackler despite lack of size. First player in NFL history to return a punt and kick for a touchdown in a game in 1955.

Place Kicker – Pete Gogolak (1966-74)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Professional football’s first soccer-style kicker. The first player to jump from the AFL to the NFL. The Giants all-time leader in field goals, extra points, and total points scored.

Punter – Don Chandler (1956-64)

  • All-Decade Team 1960’s

Solid punter who performed at his best in crucial situations. Also doubled as place kicker later in his career. Led the NFL in punting in 1958. Holds the Giants top two spots for highest punting average in post-season contests.

Kick Returner – Clarence Childs (1964-67)

Giants all-time leader in kickoff return yardage. One of only three Giants to return two for touchdowns. His 987 yards returned in 1964 remained a team record for 39 seasons. His 100-yard return in 1964 remains tied as the longest in franchise history.

Punt Returner – Emlen Tunnell** (1948-59)

Scored 10 return touchdowns with the Giants: five punts, four interceptions, and a kickoff. Retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in punt returns and punt return yards. Second in Giants history with five punt returns for touchdowns. Was a master at faking the oncoming tackler into a move then sliding into the opening with a fluid side-step.

** Appears on team more than once.

The second wave of rule changes designed to liberate the passing offense and increase scoring took place in 1978; the same season the NFL went to a 16-game schedule, added a second Wild Card team to the post-season tournament, and bolstered rosters to 45 players.

The 5-yard bump rule was imposed on defensive players. Double touching of a forward pass by the offensive team became legal. Offensive linemen could now block with extended arms and open hands. The intentional grounding penalty was reduced from 15 yards to 10. Also, the Line Judge was added as the game-day seventh official. Enter the era of the frustrated defense.

It did not take long for the impact of these rules to achieve their desired impact: rushing attempts fell from 58% in 1977 to 56% in 1978 to 52% in 1979 to 49% in 1980. The NFL has remained a pass-first league ever since.

From 1982 through 1984, the game-day roster size increased to a high of 49 players, then dropped to 45, where it has remained. The larger rosters allowed players who were less well-rounded but more highly specialized to carve out niches for themselves on teams that valued their distinctive skill sets.

At one time there was little difference between a left end and right end on offense or between a safety and a halfback on defense. Today a team will stock a roster three deep at the tight end position alone: one who is an in-line blocker, one who flexes out as a receiver, and one who moves as an H-Back. Defensively, corners are now desired by the scheme they fit (man-on-man or zone coverage), with tackling ability possibly a secondary concern. The same is true of safeties; some play close to the line of scrimmage as a hybrid linebacker, some fill in a slot corner role. Linebackers are touted as 3-down players if they have multiple skills. Some offensive backs only play on third down. Since the advent of full free agency in 1993, players have had the opportunity to select the best fit for their careers, whether it is suitable for their talent or simply financial remuneration.

This current group of Giants players has won half of the franchise’s eight world championships. Some are still active and have not completed their stories. Few will spend their career with a single team, as they follow the current of the open market when they reach free agency. This is an echo from professional football’s earliest era when 60-minute players would sign game-to-game contracts as a supplementary income to their full-time jobs.

Post-Modern Era (1978 – 2013)
Leonard Marshall (70), Harry Carson (53), New York Giants (September 21, 1986)

Leonard Marshall (70), Harry Carson (53), New York Giants (September 21, 1986)

Head Coach – Bill Parcells (1983-90), Assistant Coach (1981-82)

  • HOF Class of 2013
  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

Joined Giants staff as linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Coached Lawrence Taylor as a rookie to All-Pro status. Culminated the revival of the struggling Giants franchise with their first league title in 30 years as head coach in 1986. That team’s 14 regular-season and 17 total wins stand as franchise single-season highs. Led the Giants to another NFL title in 1990. His eight career post-season wins are tied for first in Giants history.

Honorable Mention – Tom Coughlin (2004-present), Offensive Assistant Coach (1988-90)

Won three Super Bowls as member of Giants, first as receivers coach under Bill Parcells from 1988-90, then head coach in 2007 and 2011. Won at #1 and #2 NFC seeds in both post-seasons and defeated #1 AFC seed in both Super Bowls. Eight post-season wins tied for first in Giants history.

Offensive Coordinator – Ron Erhardt (1982-92)

Architect of versatile Giants offense that won two Super Bowls with two different quarterbacks and two different offensive lines that emphasized different blocking styles. Three times his offense was ranked in the top three for fewest turnovers.

Honorable Mention – Kevin Gilbride (2004-13)

Quarterbacks coach who assumed offensive coordinator position late in 2006 season. Offense led NFL in rushing in 2008, and featured two 1,000-yard backs for only the fourth time in NFL history. The 2007 Giants were fourth in the NFL in rushing while the 2011 Giants were fifth in the NFL in passing. Three performances in the 2011 post-season rank in the top six in franchise history in terms of single-game offensive yardage output.

Defensive Coordinator – Bill Belichick (1985-90), Defensive/Special Teams Assistant Coach (1979-84)

Began his career as special teams coach under Ray Perkins. Coached linebackers under Bill Parcells and took over defensive coordinator responsibilities in 1985. The 1989 Giants were second in the NFL in points allowed and the 1990 Giants were first in that category.

X Receiver – Amani Toomer (1996-2008)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2010

The Giants all-time leading receiver in catches, yards, and touchdowns for both the regular- and post-seasons. Holds the Giant regular-season record for most 100-yard receiving games. Has the second-most punt returns for touchdowns. Giants second-leading scorer in the post-season (leading non-kicker). Twenty-two 100-yard receiving games most in Giants history.

Honorable Mention – Plaxico Burress (2005-08)

Holds franchise record for most receptions in a post-season game. Had 12 touchdown catches in 2007 and caught the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII.

Left Tackle – John “Jumbo” Elliott (1988-95)

Powerful, aggressive player and dominant run blocker despite battling back problems for much of his career. Appeared in 112 regular-season games with 98 starts; started in four post-season games including Super Bowl XXV. Received the Giants first ever “Franchise Player” designation in 1993.

Honorable Mention – David Diehl (2003-13)

Starting left tackle in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. Durable, started 120 consecutive games from 2003-2010. Started at all line positions except center.

Left Guard – Rich Seubert (2001-10)

One of the toughest players ever to wear a Giants uniform. Earned a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in 2001. Suffered a serious leg injury in 2003, but rehabilitated and returned in 2005. Started all four post-season games in 2007.

Honorable Mention – William Roberts – (1984-94)

Played multiple positions. After missing the 1985 season with a knee injury, became a fixture at left guard beginning in 1987. Often played left tackle when Elliot struggled with back problems. Appeared as a reserve in Super Bowl XXI; started in Super Bowl XXV.

Center – Bart Oates (1985-93)

Played in 140 regular-season games and started 11 in the post-season, including Super Bowls XXI and XXV. The Giants had a 1,000-yard rusher in eight of his nine seasons.

Honorable Mention – Shaun O’Hara (2004-10)

Started 97 regular-season games and games six in the post-season, including Super Bowl XLII.

Right Guard – Chris Snee (2004-13)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2015
  • 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)

  • NYG Ring of Honor 2015
  • 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 (2009-2014)

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 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 NYG Updated

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

(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

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

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.


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.


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.


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.



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

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.”

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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

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. Ken Strong’s placement kick just before halftime proved to be the difference in a slugfest between two of the league’s strongest lines. The Giants and Bears went on to win their respective divisions in the newly-re-aligned 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.

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

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 1958.

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.)

Jun 242013
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Steve Owen

Steve Owen

Steve Owen: The Rock The New York Giants Were Built On

When Steve Owen, who coached the New York Giants from 1931 through 1953, died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Oneida, New York, I debated for a day whether to make the trip south for the funeral. For a long time I had felt that I owed Owen such homage, and I’d never again be able to pay it… I had wanted to make the pilgrimage because it was Owen, as much as any other, who had brought me round to the Giants and made me a fan. Unable to conceive what my life would have been without football to cushion the knocks, I was sure I owed him sorrow. – Frederick  Exley, A Fan’s Notes

Other than Wellington Mara, no other individual in the history of the New York Football Giants has had a bigger impact on the franchise than Stephen Joseph Owen. Yet sadly, Steve Owen is largely unknown and rarely remembered by fans.

Steve Owen was a four-time All-NFL, two-way tackle who played for the Giants from 1926 to 1931. Continuing as a player-coach, Owen became co-head coach with Benny Friedman for the final two games of the 1930 season. In 1931, he assumed sole head-coaching duties of the Giants for the next 23 years until 1953. In 1954 and 1966, Owen served as a scout with the Giants.

Thus for 30 years, during the crucial formative years of the franchise, Owen was the most pivotal figure within the organization not named Mara. As a player, he captained the 1927 team that won the team’s first NFL title and held opposing teams to a single-season, record-low total of 20 points. Then an entire generation of Giants’ fans grew up knowing no other head coach than Steve Owen. The first “golden age” of Giants’ football was not from 1956-63, but from 1933-46 when, during that 14-season time span under Owen, the Giants played in eight NFL Championship games, winning two.

“Steve Owen was really the rock that we built on,” said Wellington Mara. “He was like my second father…I admired him, was greatly attached to him, and respected him. He kind of brought me up in the football business.”

A Wrassler from the Indian Territory

Steve Owen was born on the same day – April 21, 1898 – that President William McKinley asked Congress to declare war on Spain. Owen was born in Cleo Springs in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), where his father had claimed land when the Cherokee Strip was opened to settlers. Owen’s father farmed the land while his mother became the area’s first schoolmarm.

Owen’s high school did not have a football team. “Outside of wrasslin’, we didn’t have any time for sports,” said Owen. “We were too busy with chores and schoolin’ and watchin’ the marshals chase outlaws across the Cimarron River.”

By the time he was 16, Owen already weighed 220 pounds. Apparently, his father was so proud of his strength that he would wake up Steve in the middle of the night to wrestle some stranger he had brought home. “I wasn’t allowed to go back to bed until I whipped the fellow Pop brought home,” said Owen.

In the summer as a high school teenager, Owen would travel to Texas to work the oil fields, making $3 a day for 12 hours of work. Owen wanted to return to Texas after graduating. However, Owen’s mom convinced him to attend Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma where Owen enlisted in the Student Army Training Corps with America’s entry into the First World War. In college, Owen wrestled professionally under the alias “Jack O’Brien” in order to protect his amateur standing.

It was also at college where Owen was introduced to football. His college coach told him, “Son, you now have the secret. It’s a rough game and you’ll get hurt if you let the other fellow hit you harder than you hit him. That’s why football is a good game. It won’t let a man play easy. You’ll learn the rules fast enough. Just remember this: respect every other boy on this squad and work with him. Never lose respect for your opponent or he’ll hit you harder than you hit him.”

A Champion as a Giants Player

In 1924, Owen signed with the Kansas City Blues for $50 per game. He also played for the Cleveland Bulldogs and Kansas City Cowboys in 1925. The Giants were so impressed with Owen that they bought Owen from the Cowboys in 1926 for $500.

“I had seen a lot of fat hogs go for more than they paid for me,” said Owen, “but in those days a fat hog was a lot more valuable than a fat tackle. I was going to New York even if I had to walk there.”

Steve Owen

Steve Owen

Owen rapidly became one of the best players on the Giants. He played for the Giants from 1926-1931, plus a one-game return in 1933. ”Stout Steve” captained the 1927 Championship team that went 11-1-1. He anchored a defense that incredibly held opposing offenses to 20 points all season. The Giants shutout 10 teams that year and out-scored their opponents 197-20.  Owen was named All-NFL four times during an era when tough men played 60 minutes on both offense and defense. Depending on the source, Owen ranged anywhere from 5’10’’ to 6’2’’ and 215 pounds to 260 pounds. (Most sources say 5’10” and around 245 pounds). “Stout Steve” Owen was known as a brutal tackler.

“If a boy isn’t willing to get off the ground and hit back a little harder than he was hit, no coach can help him,” said Owen.

“It was a one-platoon game then,” said Wellington Mara. “As Steve Owen used to say, men were men in those days.”

“Football was a different game then,” said Owen. “The ball was bigger and harder to pass, you couldn’t pass from closer than five yards behind the line of scrimmage, and, in 1927, they moved the goal posts back ten yards from the goal line. But the big difference was the way we played the game. We were pretty much a smash-and-shove gang. We were bone crushers, not fancy Dans.”

A Champion as a Giants Coach

Owen and QB Benny Friedman took over head coaching duties from LeRoy Andrews for the last two games of the 1930 season. In 1931, Owen became the Giants’ sole head coach, despite sometimes still putting on the uniform.

“Steve Owen was the Giants’ head coach when I joined the team in 1931,” said Hall of Fame Giants’ center/linebacker Mel Hein. “It was his first full year as head coach. Actually, Steve was player-coach that year, but he only suited up for about three games. He was about 33 or 34 then. Steve was a very good coach, though, and all the players respected him.”

As a head coach, Owen never signed a contract with the Mara family. At the end of each season, from 1931 to 1953, he coached on a simple handshake agreement.

“Life and football were similar to Owen,” said journalist and author Gerald Eskenazi. “Neither was complicated. Appearances were not deceiving. He judged a man by his actions, and it was as simple as that.”

Owen was the first NFL coach to emphasize defense, and thus, Owen really is the grandfather of the franchise’s defensive tradition. Upsetting fans, Owen would often go for the sure field goal rather than gamble on the touchdown. “Steve was the first to stress the importance of defense and the advantage of settling for field goals instead of touchdowns,” said the Chicago Bears’ legendary George Halas in 1953. “Every team strives today to do what Owen was doing twenty years ago.”

Owen believed in solid, physical, fundamental football. He made sure his players knew how to block and tackle. Owen was not splashy and his run-oriented offenses were criticized as being too conservative.

“If it’s new,” wrote a sportswriter, “Close-to-the-Vest Owen won’t try it.”

“Football is a game played down in the dirt and it always will be,” said Owen. “There’s no use getting fancy about it.”

The NFL did not start playing championship games until 1933. Owen’s first two seasons as head coach were underwhelming as New York finished 7-6-1 in 1931 (fifth in the NFL) and 4-6-2 in 1932 (fifth in the NFL).

Everything changed in 1933. The NFL inaugurated the divisional structure combined with the NFL Championship Game. Under Owen, the Giants became perennial contenders and would play in eight of NFL’s first 14 championship games.

In 1933 and 1934, the Giants finished first in the NFL’s new Eastern Division with 11-3 and 8-5 records, respectively. The Giants lost the 1933 Championship to the Chicago Bears in a nail biter 23-21. The following season, New York enacted their revenge on the undefeated 13-0 Chicago Bears by winning 30-13 in the famous “sneakers” 1934 Championship Game. The Giants won the Eastern Division again in 1935 with a 9-3 record, but lost the 1935 Championship Game to the Detroit Lions 26-7.

1934 New York Giants

1934 New York Giants

After a two year hiatus from the playoffs, the Giants won Eastern Division in 1938 (8-2-1) and 1939 (9-1-1). The Giants beat the Packers 23-17 in a thrilling Championship Game in New York in 1938, but lost the 1939 Championship Game in Milwaukee to the Packers 27-0.

In the next seven seasons, the Giants would win the Eastern Division three more times and tie for the division lead in another season. But the Giants would lose all four post-season games, including the three Championship Games and the division tie-breaker. The Bears beat the Giants in the Championship Game in 1941 (39-7) and 1946 (24-14), and the Packers beat the Giants in the 1944 Championship Game (14-7). The Giants also lost the divisional tie-breaker 28-0 to the Redskins in 1943. From 1942-45, many of the Giants’ best players had gone off to fight the Germans and Japanese.

Appearing in eight NFL Championships in 14 years was a remarkable run. However, Owen’s luster began to fade after the 1946 season. The Giants fell to 2-8-2 in 1947, 4-8 in 1948, and 6-6 in 1949.

“I still didn’t know much about football,” said Giants’ owner Tim Mara, “but I knew from what my sons told me that what was happening to us wasn’t the coach’s fault. We just weren’t giving Owen the players to win, and that was our fault, not his.”

Steve Owen, New York Giants, 1941 Pro Bowl

Steve Owen (Middle) at 1941 Pro Bowl

Despite the introduction of the powerhouse Cleveland Browns into the Giants’ division, Owen’s Giants rebounded in 1950 (10-2, first-place divisional tie), 1951 (9-2-1, second place), and 1952 (7-5, second place). Nevertheless, when the Giants fell to 3-9 in 1953, the writing was on the wall for Owen and the Giants. It had been seven years since the Giants played in a Championship Game and 15 years without a post-season victory. The game was entering the modern era, with more attention to detail and complex new offensive innovations. It was clear the NFL was changing but Owen wasn’t. It was time to go.

In the waning moments of his last game as head coach of the Giants – a 27-16 loss to the Detroit Lions in December 1953 – television cameras showed Owen standing alone on the sidelines in tears.

Officially, Owen “resigned” but he was forced to do so. Wellington Mara said the decision to let Owen go was extremely difficult. “It was like telling your father you’re putting him out of your home,” said Mara.

“You’ve got a place with the Giants as long as you live, Steve,” said Jack Mara to Owen. “I hope you know that.”

Owen served as a scout with the Giants briefly, but then he moved on. “He was hurt and wanted no part of that,” said Wellington Mara.

The Innovator

Owen was criticized for being unimaginative. But not only is he recognized as the first NFL head coach to focus on defense, Owen is credited with several important innovations.

In the old NFL, player substitution was restricted. If a player left the field, he couldn’t return until the next quarter. There were no separate offensive, defensive, and special teams units. Most teams played their 11 two-way starters until they dropped. By the fourth quarter, the best players were usually hurt or out of gas. In 1937, Owen was the first head coach to develop a two-platoon system by maintaining two relatively equal squads and substituting 10 starters at the end of the first and third quarters. (Because he was so valuable, center/linebacker Mel Hein continued to play a full 60 minutes).

Steve Owen, Ken Strong, Ward Cuff, New York Giants (1939)

Steve Owen, Ken Strong, and Ward Cuff in 1939

“To start with, (the two-platoon system) lessens the wear and tear on the individual player,” said Owen. “He doesn’t play enough to get tired and therefore is better able to absorb the bumps that go with the play. But more important I think is the effect on team morale. I find that a rivalry has risen between my A and B squads. Each one wants to outdo the other and that’s incentive to keep ’em driving. So long as I can keep my two squads intact, I’m convinced the Giants will continue to win.”

Owen also devised the A-formation in 1937, which at the time was considered a radical offensive concept. After showing one offensive set, the Giants would then shift into the single wing, double wing, punt formation, or the A-formation. In the A-formation, the Giants would unbalance their line to one side and overbalance the backfield to the other side.

“He split his lineman and placed four on the right side of the center and just an end and tackle on the left,” said Giants’ fullback/safety Hank Soar. “He put the wingback behind the weak side end, the blocker behind the weak side tackle, the tailback four yards behind the center with the quarterback a yard in front of him and to his right.”

The A-formation was difficult to defend because the center could snap the football to one of three players – the quarterback, fullback, or blocking back. And either the quarterback or fullback could throw the football. The Giants were the only team to use the A-formation because it required having a great center, and the Giants were fortunate enough to have the best in the game, Mel Hein.

Steve Owen, New York Giants (1939)

Steve Owen at the Blackboard in 1939

Owen was at heart a defensive coach and he was not afraid to innovate on defense. Teams traditionally used seven-man defensive lines, but Owen experimented with six- and five-man fronts. In 1937, he moved the Giants to a 5-3-3 defense.

“Even as a player Steve was conscious of the importance of a good defense,” said Soar. “He tried to convince his coach to use such radical departures from the standard defenses as five and six-man lines. When he became coach of the Giants he put his ideas into action. We had stunting linemen, rushing linebackers although we did not call it the blitz, and as the safety man I often performed what is now called the safety blitz. We had a very good pass defense and fellows like (Sammy) Baugh, (Cecil) Isbell, and (Don) Hutson seldom had good days against us.”

In 1950, Owen is also credited with creating the umbrella defense, which was largely designed to stop the dynamic passing attack of QB Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns. The umbrella employed a 6-1-4 formation that would have the ends drop into coverage, placing the defensive emphasis on coverage rather than the pass rush. It was a novel concept at the time and it worked like a charm against the super-talented Browns for a few years. In fact, Owen’s Giants won four of their six regular-season meetings against the Browns from 1950-52. The 10-2 Giants were the only team to beat the Browns (twice) in 1950, including shutting Cleveland out for the first time ever, but New York lost the divisional playoff to the Cleveland 8-3. This was the start of the great Giants-Browns rivalry of the 1950’s as New York proved to be Cleveland’s greatest nemesis.

Tom Landry was a defensive back in Owen’s umbrella defense, along with Hall of Fame defensive back Emlen Tunnell. A few years later, as Giants’ defensive coordinator, Landry would tweak Owen’s umbrella defense, creating the modern 4-3 defense.

Owen Comes Home

After Owen “resigned,” he remained with the Giants briefly as a scout in 1954. He went on to do some coaching with South Carolina, Baylor, and the Eagles. Owen then served as head coach for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts (1959), Calgary Stampeders (1960), and Saskatchewan Roughriders (1961-62). Owen was named CFL Coach of the Year in 1962.

Owen suffered a heart attack late in 1962 and he resigned from the Roughriders in January 1963. Unable to stay away from football, Owen became the head coach of the United Football League’s Syracuse Stormers in March 1963. But the Stormers finished the season winless at 0-12.

After coaching the Stormers, Owen came home. “Do you think you could find a job for a broken down old coach?” Owen asked Jack Mara. “I know we can,” said Mara. “We can always make room for another scout.”

Steve Owen died on May 17, 1964 at the age of 66 after suffering a terminal cerebral hemorrhage. He was survived by his second wife Miriam who passed away in 2001 at the age of 90. Both are buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Oneida, New York. (Owen’s first wife Florence passed away in 1933 in Boston, during training camp).

Steve Owen and Miriam Sweeney in 1935

Steve Owen and Miriam Sweeney in 1935

At the time of his death, Arthur Daley of The New York Times wrote, “It was only fitting that stout Steve should have been a member of the Giant organization when he died yesterday…It is quite possible that no professional coach ever inspired more love, devotion, and admiration among his players than did Steve. The only counterpart was Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. A might stout fella was Owen. The Giants and all professional football owe him much for his contributions.”

Owen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years later in 1966. The Hall later named him to the “All-NFL Team of the 1920’s.”

As a player, Steve Owen anchored and captained the Giants’ 1927 Championship team. As head coach for nearly a quarter century, Owen’s Giants accrued a 153-100-17 regular-season record. No other Giants’ head coach comes close to matching Owen’s win total. His Giants won eight division titles and two NFL Championships. He began New York’s storied defensive tradition, and created the two-platoon system, the A-formation, and the umbrella defense.

As a Hall of Fame player and a coach, Steve Owen was a Giant among men.

Feb 132006
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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

The recent election of Harry Carson into the Pro Football Hall of Fame spurred me to write this article. Carson, one of the greatest middle linebackers ever to play the game, was first eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1993. He had to wait 13 long years before receiving confirmation of his acceptance. But at least Carson is alive to enjoy his personal triumph. Unfortunately, for another Giant great, Benjamin “Benny” Friedman, the honor came far too late.

Most football fans today, including Giants fans, have never heard of Benny Friedman. That’s too bad because not only was Friedman one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, he, in fact, revolutionized the pro game by becoming the League’s first great passer. There are only four quarterbacks with ties to the Giants in the Hall of Fame: Y.A. Tittle, Fran Tarkenton, Arnie Herber, and Benny Friedman. The two longest tenured quarterbacks with the team – Phil Simms and Charlie Conerly – are not in the Hall. Yet Friedman’s induction in 2005 went barely noticed by the media and fans. Even the Giants organization did not publicize it much.

So who was Benny Friedman? Friedman, arguably the greatest Jewish athlete of all time, certainly did not look the part. He was approximately 5’8” and only 170 pounds. But the Giants were so enamored with his skills that they completely dismantled another NFL team in order to acquire him. During the NFL’s early days, no one could throw the football like Friedman.

Friedman was a two-time All-American quarterback at the University of Michigan and nationwide collegiate star of the first order. In 1925 and 1926, he led Michigan to back-to-back 7-1 seasons and first place finishes in the Big Ten. Against the University of Indiana in 1925 (the same year the Giants came into existence), Friedman accounted for 44 points, throwing for five touchdowns and kicking two field goals and eight extra points. At the time, only the legendary “Galloping Ghost,” Hall of Fame halfback Red Grange, received more attention with his decision to turn pro (Grange was as famous an athlete in those days as Babe Ruth). With no NFL Draft in existence, Friedman signed with and started his NFL playing career with the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1927. A year later, the franchise moved to Detroit and became the Wolverines. Following the 1928 season, then Giants’ owner Tim Mara made a strong push to obtain Friedman, who had burned his team a couple of times. But the Wolverines would not trade him. Mara made four ever-stronger offers, yet was rebuffed each time. Mara’s solution was to buy the financially-troubled Wolverines and disband them two days later. He kept Friedman, the head coach (as part of the deal), and a few other players. To make Friedman happy, Mara paid him an annual salary of $10,000 – the most ever for a football player at a time when most players were earning $50-100 a game.

Mara made the move to obtain Friedman both for player personnel and economic reasons. The Giants won their first NFL title in 1927 with an 11-1-1 record (the team’s only loss being to Friedman’s Bulldogs). However, in 1928, the Giants fell to 4-7-2. And worse, with the Great Depression looming on the horizon, the Giants were losing money and in dire financial straits. It was hoped that Friedman would not only turn around the win-loss record, but his star-power would also put the team in the black – and that’s exactly what he did, perhaps saving the franchise. It also didn’t hurt that Friedman was Jewish and would be playing in a city heavily populated with Jews. The Giants reportedly lost $54,000 in 1928. But upon Friedman’s arrival at the Polo Grounds, fans began showing up at Giants games and the team turned a profit in his first year in New York. The Giants made $8,500 in 1929, $23,000 in 1930, and $35,000 in 1931 in Friedman’s three Depression-era seasons with the team.

Friedman only played three years for the Giants. But those three years in New York solidified his status as the NFL’s first great passer. Back in those days, the game’s rules were not conducive at all to passing. Roughing the passer was legal. If a quarterback threw two consecutive incomplete passes, the team was penalized. An incomplete pass in the opposition’s end zone resulted in a turnover. Most importantly, the ball was much rounder and harder to grip. That did not matter to Friedman, who had incredibly strong hands. “I think the most amazing thing about him was the way he could throw the kind of football that was in use in his days,” said Giants’ co-owner Wellington Mara, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 89. “Did you ever see that ball? It was like trying to throw a wet sock.”

Benny Friedman With the Detroit Wolverines

Benny Friedman with the Detroit Wolverines

In each of his first four years in the NFL, including his first two with the Giants, Friedman won first-team All-NFL honors and led the league in passing touchdowns. Although complete statistics were not kept, it is believed that Friedman completed more than half of his passes at a time when a 35 percent completion percentage was considered a very good performance. He led the league in touchdown passes each of his first four years. He twice passed for more than 1,500 yards in a season – an unheard of total for that era. In fact, no other NFL passer would reach that mark until 1942. From 1927 to 1930, Friedman threw for 50 percent more yards and twice as many touchdowns than the next-best quarterback in the NFL.

In his first year with the Giants in 1929, Friedman threw 20 touchdown passes, including four in one game – the first player to do either in the League. No NFL team would surpass 20 passing touchdowns in a season until 1942 and that total would have still led the NFL as late as 1977. The Giants’ 312-point total that year marked only the second time the 300-point barrier had been broken in the League. But it would happen again in 1930 when Friedman quarterbacked the team to 308 more points.

In the multi-tasking, two-way days of the early NFL, Friedman could do more than pass the football. Friedman could run, kick, and play defense. In 1928, the year before he came to the Giants, he led the NFL in both rushing and passing touchdowns – something no other player in NFL history has accomplished. He also led the league in extra points that season. In one game against the Bears, he rushed for 164 yards. Friedman also played defensive back.

Benny Friedman, New York Giants (1931)

Benny Friedman, New York Giants (1931)

Friedman, whose jersey number with the Giants was #1, immediately turned around the Giants’ fortunes on the football field. From 4-7-2 in 1928, the Giants improved to 13-1-1 in 1929, finishing second in the NFL behind the 12-0-1 Green Bay Packers (NFL Championship Games were not played until 1933). In 1930, Friedman led the Giants to another second-place finish with a 13-4 record (a .765 winning percentage), barely missing out on their second NFL title to the Packers again (who had a .769 winning percentage with a 10-3-1 record).

The biggest event in 1930 for the Giants however was the charity exhibition game played on December 14th at the Polo Grounds against a Notre Dame All-Star team of former Irish football greats, including the legendary “Four Horsemen.” The game was played during the season-long pennant chase with the Packers, but many New Yorkers were starving. Despite New York City being gripped in the depths of the Great Depression, 55,000 fans came to watch and Tim Mara donated the entire gate receipt ($115,153 – an astronomical amount of money in those days) to the New York City Unemployment Fund. It was widely expected by many that the Notre Dame team would beat the Giants, but it was the G-Men who thrashed Knute Rockne’s Fighting Irish 22-0. Notre Dame never crossed midfield and was held to one first down. Friedman, the team captain for the Giants, scored two of New York’s three touchdowns.

“There are those who say Friedman is the greatest passer of all time,” said Rockne. “They are not far wrong. He could hit a dime at 40 yards; besides being a great passer, he hit the line, tackled, blocked, and did everything – no mere specialty man – that a fine football player should do.”


Benny Friedman (1), New York Giants (November 22, 1931)

Benny Friedman (1), New York Giants (November 22, 1931)

“He was the best quarterback I ever played against,” said Red Grange. “There was no one his equal in throwing a football in those days.” Grange later said, “Anybody can throw today’s football. You go back to Benny Friedman playing with the New York Giants…He threw that old balloon. Now who’s to tell what Benny Friedman might do with this modern football? He’d probably be the greatest passer that ever lived.”

“He is the greatest forward passer in the history of the game,” wrote a famed New York Daily News sportswriter. “No other passer has his accuracy, his judgment of distance, his intuitive ability to pick out the best receiver.”

Friedman’s productivity in 1931 began to decline. A knee injury slowed him on the field. He also became distracted as he was also serving as an assistant backfield coach at Yale. Indeed, he missed the first four games of the season because of his coaching duties (the Giants lost three of those games). In 1931, the Giants fell to fifth place in the NFL with a 7-6-1 record. After the season, Friedman demanded that Tim Mara give him a piece of the team. “(Mara) said, ‘No, I’m keeping it all for my sons,'” said Friedman. “That was that. I thought I deserved a piece of the club because I felt I had played a big part in moving it from the red ink to the black ink. And when Tim turned me down I felt I should move along, that I couldn’t stay with him.”

In 1932, Friedman left for the Brooklyn (Football) Dodgers as a player and coach. He led the league in completion percentage in his last full season as a player with Brooklyn in 1933, completing 53 percent of his throws or 10 percent better than the next most accuarate quarterback. He was named second-team All-NFL. Friedman retired from the NFL after the 1934 season at the age of 29. In his eight NFL seasons, Friedman played in 81 games, threw 66 touchdown passes, rushed for 18 touchdowns, and kicked two field goals and 71 extra points. He also caught five passes for 67 yards. His 66 career touchdown passes was an NFL record until Hall of Famer Arnie Herber passed him in 1944, the first of his two seasons with the Giants.

After his playing days, Friedman coached the City College of New York until World War II started for the United States in 1941. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia personally asked Friedman to take the City College position. During the war, Friedman served with the Navy as a lieutenant commander aboard an aircraft carrier. He later became the athletic director (1949-1963) and head coach (1951-1959) at Brandeis University.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame was established in 1963 and Friedman lobbied hard for his inclusion. But by doing so, it is said that he turned off a number of voters. In fact, he was not even nominated from 1963 to 2004. Friedman reportedly became increasingly bitter toward the NFL. In 1970, he criticized the League for “brashness and arrogance beyond belief” for not including pre-1958 players in the NFL’s pension benefit program.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Friedman was a forgotten man living in obscurity. He suffered from heart problems and severe diabetes, the latter causing him to lose a leg. On November 23, 1982, Friedman turned a gun on himself and died at the age of 77. In the note he left behind, Friedman said he didn’t want to end up as “the old man on the park bench.”

Twenty-three years too late and 71 years after his playing days were over, the Seniors Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame finally honored him in 2005.

At the time of Friedman’s selection to the Hall of Fame, Wellington Mara said of Friedman, “He towered over his contemporaries and set the stage of the development of the passing game we see today.”

“Benny revolutionized football,” the Bears’ George Halas once said. “He forced defenses out of the dark ages.”


  • “Battlin’ Benny – The Man Who Invented the Passing Game,”, Willard Manus, March 2002.
  • “The Man That Fame Forgot,” The Boston Globe, January 30, 2005.
  • “A Long Wait That Will End Much Too Late,” The Washington Times, Dan Daly, February 5, 2005.
  • “Hall of a Snub for Carson,”, Michael Eisen, February 5, 2005.
  • “Friedman Joining Pro Football’s Pantheon,”, Joe Goldstein, August 2, 2005.
  • “Hall of Fame 2005: NFL Pioneer Friedman Headed to Hall Posthumously,” Associated Press, Barry Wilner, August 4, 2005.
  • The Giants: From the Polo Grounds to Super Bowl XXI – An Illustrated History, Richard Whittingham, 1987.
  • New York Giants: Seventy-Five Years, Jerry Izenberg, 1999.
  • New York Giants: 75 Years of Football Memories, edited by Victoria J. Parrillo of The Daily News, 1999.
Aug 032004
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Roosevelt Brown, New York Giants (1957)

Roosevelt Brown, New York Giants (1957)

By Frank ‘Dog’ Piliere

Disclaimer: The following article is based on real events. Frank ‘Dog” Piliere created the dialogue.

Training camp started for the 2004 New York Football Giants. As they take the field it is evident these Giants are very different then last years. In addition to a new coaching staff, the Giants have replaced nearly half their roster. Sadly one Giant that fans will miss in Albany this year is Rosie Brown. The Giants’ Hall Of Fame Tackle passed away on June 9. Rosie Brown has been a regular attendee at Giants Training Camp since he was drafted in 1953. A family run organization, the New York Football Giants have traditionally strived to accept its players as if they were members of the family instead of football players or business associates. Rosie exemplified this notion as a participating member of the Giants family for over fifty years. He was a starting tackle from 1953 to 1965, an offensive line coach from 1966 to 1970 and worked in the scouting department from 1971 until his recent death in June.

Wellington Mara discovered Rosie while reading an article in a Pittsburgh newspaper. The article prompted the Giants to draft the 19 year old Rosie Brown in the twenty seventh round. Rosie was a starter his first season under head coach Steve Owen. Rosie’s second season the Giants replaced Steve Owen with Jim Lee Howell. Jim introduced specialization to the NFL by assigning Vince Lombardi the offense and Tom Landry the defense. This was the beginning of the offensive and defensive coordinator positions.

Lombardi was serving as an assistant coach at West Point when Wellington Mara selected him to join the Giants coaching staff. Lombardi struggled his first two seasons trying to learn football as it was played in the NFL. The fifties were an incredible time for professional football. Baseball, boxing, college football and horse racing were all much more popular then the NFL in the early fifties. In fact many fans viewed the players of the NFL as barbaric, uneducated ruffians who beat each other up every week in order to pay for their meals. The decade of the 50’s would change that perception. Vince Lombardi and Rosie Brown were key elements in these changes. Although college football was more popular, the NFL evolved much faster in terms of offensive and defensive strategies. Lombardi coming from the college ranks had a lot to learn. He had spent his career playing and coaching the Wing Formation, which dominated the college ranks. He was forced to quickly accept and learn the T-Formation, which was run in the NFL. Though Lombardi had much to learn he still had plenty to teach. He replaced man blocking by the offensive line and introduced zone blocking. In Zone Blocking the offensive line works as a unit. Instead of each lineman being assigned a particular man to block the entire line would work together to double team defensive linemen and improve their chance to prevent the linebackers from making a play. Zone blocking altered the manner in which the running backs maneuvered. Instead of running to a predetermined spot the running back would run to a hole created by the offensive linemen and the blocking patterns that evolved with each play. The expression ‘run to daylight’ was made famous by Lombardi. The game became more dynamic as one play could have several variations as it unfolded.

Lombardi wanted the running game to open up the passing game. He thought football was meant to be a running game and was obsessed with the wing formation. The Wing and Double Wing formations were the most popular formations when football began. The Wing incorporated seven linemen and four backs. The quarterback stood behind the guards, he was mostly a blocking back that would help the linemen double team a defense. The Wing back usually stood to the outside of the end at the same distance from the line of scrimmage as the quarterback. The full back stood further back from the quarterback usually behind a guard. The tail back was the star of the show. He would line up on center further back then the full back. He would receive the ball from the center and would then be able to run, pass or kick the ball. Passing the ball was difficult in the Wing formations because it was difficult for the ends to break away from the defenders as they lined up close to the tackles. In the Double Wing the quarterback would become the second wingback on the opposite side of the field as the first wingback. With the tight formation and lots of moving blockers it is easy to see why the wing was so useful to run the ball. Defenses learned to adjust by jamming the line of scrimmage and shutting down the wing’s effectiveness.

Lombardi diligently studied and recorded the various offenses being run in the NFL. He would write the plays on legal sized notepads for closer study. He designed his own offense in the same manner. Lombardi created plays that his players viewed as tricks or gimmicks. The plays could occasionally catch a defense off guard. The players were skeptical when Lombardi started talking about incorporating the Wing formation in the NFL. Lombardi’s first year with the Giants was difficult for him. He had trouble winning the player’s confidence. After his first season with the Giants he decided to leave. He went back to his old head coach at West Point and accepted an oral agreement to return to West Point for the 1955 season. Wellington Mara, the Giants owner, managed to coerce Lombardi to change his mind. There were many differences between the NFL players and Lombardi but because of Lombardi’s desire to succeed and his willingness to listen and compromise with his players they had come to trust and believe in each other.

When Lombardi worked a play out on paper he would test it by teaching it to his players. Lombardi was a detail-oriented teacher. He would repeatedly shout out each assignment to every player. The players knew many of Lombardi’s plays would not work in the NFL and they let Lombardi know. But Lombardi would not give up.

Rosie Brown was extremely athletic and powerful. He thrived in Lombardi’s offensive system. One day during Giants training camp in 1955, Rosie Brown sparked an event that would dominate the NFL for the next decade.

The Giants held their training camp at Willamette University in Salem Oregon. The climate was cooler then in the east. But Lombardi was still his heated self. “Do not stand still on my line of scrimmage. If you do not have a defender to block move your ass down field and find one. Now let’s line it up on three.” Conerly received the snap and turned to hand the ball to Gifford. Gifford took the ball in his midsection and sprinted toward his right; suddenly Rosie Brown appeared out of nowhere downfield and clobbered the safety. Vince Lombardi started screaming.

“Brown do you know where the hell you are? Damnit son wait for the ball to be snapped before you start moving around. Now give it to me again, on three this time, you hear that Brown on three.”

Conerly receives the snap, hands it off to Gifford. Gifford starts toward his right and Lombardi starts to go off again.

“Brown what the hell are you doing?” Once again Rosie Brown is down field.

Lombardi walks over to end Coach Ken Kavanaugh and line Coach Ed Kolman.
“Can you guys tell me what the hell Rosie is doing?” Lombardi asks.

Kavanaugh responds “Come on Vince he’s 20 years old he did a great job for us last year, I think you have him out of sorts with the zone blocking. He’ll get it just give him some reps. That’s all he needs.”

Once again the team tries the play and once again Rosie is down field taking out the safety. Vince starts screaming, “Give me the ball. Give me the damn ball!”

Lombardi was always loud and very excitable. Since he joined the Giants several players enjoyed pushing him over the edge just to get him screaming. Gifford recognized the moment as a perfect opportunity. He flipped the ball underhand towards Lombardi. Gifford threw it short with a lot of spin on it. Lombardi grabbed at the ball but it fell just out of his reach. The heavily spun ball bounced straight up as Lombardi was lunging forward and it hit Lombardi in his clipboard causing him to drop the clipboard. Lombardi violently tried to kick the moving ball only to have it bounce sharply to the right. as his leg missed the ball by a foot. Several players snickered and started to laugh. “Give me that damn ball!” Lombardi demanded. He finally had the ball. He stood beside Rosie Brown and instructed him to get in his stance. He then gets down beside him with the ball. “Now kid I don’t know if you are deaf or something but just in case you are I want you to watch the ball with your periphial vision. Don’t actually look at the ball but still see it. As soon as you see the ball move you move. Not a second before not a second after.” Lombardi stands up and tosses the ball over to the center. He shouts, “All right lets do it again on three. On three Rosie”

This time all coaches’ eyes were on Rosie Brown. The ball is snapped to Conerly who hands off to Gifford and before Gifford even moves Lombardi is yelling to stop the play. “You son of a bitch”, Vince is yelling at know one in particular. “I need a son of a bitch with a camera over here now.” Lombardi insisted on studying films. He was a pioneer for the NFL in film study as well as camera positioning. He insisted on having wide screen lenses to better see the entire field. This time he wanted a wide-angle shot of the play as well as a close up of Rosie Brown. Rosie you son of a bitch, Lombardi shouted out again flashing his big toothy grin as he starts to laugh out loud. “Do you see what is happening here?” he shouts into the clear Oregon air. Lombardi had them run the play several times to completion. He wanted the film to study. He wasn’t quite sure of the meaning but he did realize that Rosie Brown was not jumping off early. Rosie Brown was so fast that he was actually ahead of the defense. From these observations Lombardi was able to utlilize his tackle in much the same way as his wing backs thus making it possible to run the power sweep from the T-Formation. In 1955 mid way through the season the Giants offense started to stall. Jim Lee Howell requested some new ideas. Lombardi then introduced his version of the sweep to Howell.

This season Giants fans should pay close attention to the offensive line. The game is controlled on the line of scrimmage. Last season the Giants expectations were crushed when their offensive line collapsed with injuries. The next game you watch observe the coordinated efforts of the linemen while they maneuver as a unit to execute a play. Remember Hall of Famer Rosie Brown the Giants greatest tackle that ever played not only helped the Giants win the 1956 Championship and five division championships but he was monumental in the modern evolution of football. History is written by the victors. If the Giants defeated the Colts in the 58 championship and then Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in 61 and 62 perhaps we would be calling one of the most famous plays in the NFL the ‘Giants Sweep’ or even the ‘Rosie Sweep’.

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