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

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

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

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

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

Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds (circa 1954-57)

Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds (circa 1954-57)

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Giants early logos.

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

Exponential Exposure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Touches and Finishing Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vince Lombardi and Frank Gifford, New York Giants (December 9, 1956)

Vince Lombardi and Frank Gifford, New York Giants (December 9, 1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

52 eagle oklahoma defenses

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

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

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

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

43 inside outside defenses

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

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

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

1956 New York Giants

1956 New York Giants

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

The Long and Winding Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Apple of New York’s Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prosperity then Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Conerly, New York Giants (December 1956)

Charlie Conerly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Accolades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Giants - Chicago Bears 1956 NFL Championship Ticket Stub

New York Giants – Chicago Bears 1956 NFL Championship Ticket Stub

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

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

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

The Big One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Giants 1956 NFL Championship Ring (Ben Agajanian)

New York Giants 1956 NFL Championship Ring

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

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


SOURCES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuff Stuff
Sam Huff, 1988, St. Martins Press

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

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

Historical New York Times Searchable Archive (via ProQuest)

Chicago Tribune

Google News Historical Archive

The Pittsburgh Press

Dec 312014
 
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Don Chandler, New York Giants (1963)

Don Chandler, New York Giants (1963)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mixed Styles, Unpredictable Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hints of Specialty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perceived Handicaps as an Advantage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Agajanian, New York Giants (1957)

Ben Agajanian, New York Giants (1957)

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

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

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

A Star is Born

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Conerly (42) and Pat Summerall (88)

Charlie Conerly (42) and Pat Summerall (88)

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

Double Duty

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

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

Ken Strong, New York Giants (1962)

Ken Strong, New York Giants (1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Catalyst for Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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