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

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

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

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

The Impetus for Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1933)

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1933)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comeback Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Pennant Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Greatest Game Ever Played

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1933 NFL Championship Game (December 17, 1933)

1933 NFL Championship Game (December 17, 1933)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 062014
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1944 New York Giants

1944 New York Giants

by Larry Schmitt for

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.