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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.

Jul 062014
 
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1944 New York Giants

1944 New York Giants

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

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

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

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

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

Bill Paschal, New York Giants (1944)

Bill Paschal, New York Giants (1944)

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

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

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

Fighting for Every Inch

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

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

The Next Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crunch Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limping to the Finish Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1944 NFL Championship Game Program

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

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

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

Fight to the Finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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