Jul 062014
 
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1944 New York Giants

1944 New York Giants

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

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

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

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

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

Bill Paschal, New York Giants (1944)

Bill Paschal, New York Giants (1944)

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

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

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

Fighting for Every Inch

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

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

The Next Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crunch Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limping to the Finish Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1944 NFL Championship Game Program

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

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

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

Fight to the Finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 152014
 
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1927 New York Giants

1927 New York Football Giants – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

The early attempts to organize professional football were no doubt sincere. But results were minimal. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that trial-and-error was the guiding principal for many of the organizational efforts by the nascent National Football League (NFL). Even its first name, the American Professional Football Association (APFA), required refinement. At least that was a quick-and-easy fix; many others were not.

APFA President Joe Carr (who served from 1921-39 and is known as the man who brought respectability to professional football) was quick and decisive to correct faults. His simple philosophy was the sport should always strive for the highest possible standards and the public should be considered first, last and always.

The lack of standardized player contracts, make-shift schedules and franchise instability were paramount issues that were gradually rectified over time. However, with no post-season play until 1933, the most public controversies were the ones that came after the close of each season (the end to each season being sometimes ambiguous itself) when more than one team claimed itself league champions. Four of the first six APFA/NFL titles were publically disputed, hurting the credibility of the pro game with a sporting public who clearly preferred the college game at the time.

It didn’t help any that the first controversy came after the APFA’s inaugural 1920 season. The lack of structure was astounding and nobody had the foresight to recognize that it was lacking. There were 14 teams stacked top-to-bottom, with a convoluted method of calculating win percentage (remarkably, the all-too-common ties were discounted); no coherent tie-breakers; unbalanced, makeshift schedules that teams modified during the season; and a lack of a clearly defined conclusion to the season. This was a recipe for disaster.

Even worse, most of the early championships were not awarded until an oft-contentious vote at the spring meetings, months after the last game had been played. The title outcome was inevitably anti-climactic.

A Litany of Confusion, Confrontation and Conspiracy

Intrigue surrounded the 1920 Championship as three teams claimed ownership of the title. It also illuminated the folly of treating tie games as non-entities.

The Akron Pros appeared atop the APFA with a record of 8-0-3. However, the unbalanced schedule saw two teams with more victories than Akron. The Decatur Staleys (soon to be known as the Chicago Bears) were second with a 10-1-2 record, and third were the Buffalo All-Americans at 9-1-1. Both challengers supported their bids by highlighting the fact that the Pros did not beat either of them, having played both to 0-0 ties.

Regardless, the vote at the April owners meeting went to Akron. Interestingly, applying the tie-breaker principle that was put in place in 1972 that calculates tie games as a half-win and half-loss, Akron and Buffalo would have tied for first place with a win percentage of 0.864 and Decatur third with 0.846. Buffalo and Decatur may have left dissatisfied, but this was nothing compared to what they would be embroiled in next season.

As the 1921 season was coming to a close, the renamed Chicago Staleys and Buffalo All-Americans found themselves in a fight for first place. They met on Thanksgiving Day with the All-Americans coming out on top 7-6. The win vaulted Buffalo to the top of the APFA standings with a 7-0-2 record and dropped Chicago to second at 6-1-0. Buffalo won their remaining two games to finish 9-0-2 and publically touted themselves as league champions. The Staleys played one more game against Green Bay, which they won, and finished their schedule at 7-1.

At this point, the Staleys owner-player-coach George Halas challenged Buffalo owner Frank McNeil to a rematch on his turf. McNeil accepted, but allegedly on the grounds that the game be treated as an exhibition contest. The 10-7 Chicago win served as a catalyst for turmoil. Now within a win of 9-1-2 Buffalo, Halas quickly scheduled two more games on his home field against Canton and the Chicago Cardinals, winning one and tying the other.

Halas successfully petitioned the league’s owners to award his 9-1-1 team the league crown. His claim was unique, and the ultimate decision at the April owners’ meetings set a significant precedent, despite McNeil’s objections. Halas argued not only that the aggregate score of the two Buffalo-Chicago contests (which favored the Bears 16-14) be taken into consideration, but that the second game be given more weight in that it had more importance being nearer the close of the season. The majority of owners decided that the outcome of the second head-to-head contest should carry more weight. That policy would remain through 1932.

Fortunately for Carr and the rest of the now renamed National Football League, the 1922 and 1923 seasons were without title dispute as player-coach Guy Chamberlin’s Canton Bulldogs trucked through the competition with nearly unscathed records of 10-0-2 and 11-0-1. Despite their on-field success, Canton struggled financially and suspended operations for the 1924 season.

Sam Deustch, owner of the Cleveland Indians franchise, quickly signed seven members of the Canton roster, including Chamberlin, and signed Michigan Wolverine passing sensation Benny Friedman after his college graduation. The bolstered Cleveland team, which included a late-season addition of tackle Steve Owen from the Kansas City Cowboys, defeated the Chicago Bears 16-14 in their opener and faced little competition the rest of the season, losing and tying the Frankford Yellow Jackets on their way to a 7-1-1 record. All of this factored into another convoluted, off-field fight to determine the league’s championship, but in this case to the betterment of the league’s reputation as a loop-hole would be closed in the process.

The league standings, at the still-ambiguous close of the 1924 season, stacked up in this order: Cleveland 7-1-1 (0.875 win percentage), Chicago 6-1-4 (0.857) and Frankford 11-2-1 (0.846). Halas attempted similar tactics that worked in his favor in 1921. After a Thanksgiving Day win boosted the Bears record to 5-1-4, he scheduled a game against the weak Milwaukee Badgers, which Chicago won 31-14, then challenged Cleveland to a rematch.

Carr stepped in and ruled that the schedule retroactively officially ended November 30. Teams were permitted to continue playing, but those contests would be rendered with an exhibition status and would not count in the official league standings. Cleveland was awarded the championship, Chamberlin’s third in a row.

The next season in 1925, another precedent was set, one which would significantly support the New York Giants tenuous franchise.

College football was still a significantly larger draw than professional football. The Pottsville Maroons and Frankford Yellow Jackets had an agreement that the better team in the region would host the Notre Dame All Stars in Philadelphia. The teams split their head-to-head games, but Pottsville’s 49-0 advantage in the second game and their better record was decisive. Frankford ostensibly believed Pottsville ran up the score in their landslide victory, and petitioned the league office that Pottsville hosting the game in Philadelphia was an infringement on their territory. To underscore their point, Frankford scheduled a game versus Cleveland at Frankford Stadium, which was just outside of Philadelphia, on the same date. Moving or cancelling the game would be a financial disaster the Maroons would not be able to absorb, as the All Stars would not appear for a game at Pottsville’s high school stadium at Minersville Park.

Carr sided with the plaintiff Yellow Jackets and telegrammed the Maroons to move or cancel the exhibition contest. Pottsville owner John Streigel declared his intent to still play the game. Streigel later said he received verbal permission from Carr to play the All Stars at Shibe Park, even though Carr issued two subsequent statements claiming the opposite.

Carr suspended Pottsville from the league immediately following the exhibition contest, and awarded their scheduled game at Providence on December 13 to Frankford. Nevertheless, Pottsville’s 10-2 record and convincing head-to-head win against the Chicago Cardinals paced them ahead of the 9-2-1 Cardinals. However since the league’s end date had been previously set at December 20, Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien scheduled two more home games against weaker teams to pad his team’s win total.

When the season finally ended on December 20, the top of the standings had the Cardinals in first at 11-2-1 and Pottsville 10-2-0. Pottsville was not represented at the owners meeting when the crown was given to the Cardinals since they were still barred from the league.

New York, New York

Given all that tumult, it is easy to forget that professional football finally placed a permanent foothold in the nation’s largest city, New York, which had been a part of Carr’s vision for long-term league success. Carr had originally envisioned boxing promoter Billy Gibson to be the founder, but he deferred instead to friend Tim Mara. Present at the meeting was also the football-knowledgeable Dr. Harry March. March had been vital in the success of the APFA/NFL’s predecessor, the Ohio League, where he had served as the team physician for the Canton Bulldogs. Mara took March on as a minority owner and installed him as team President to take charge of assembling a quality roster.

The Giants fared reasonably well for their first season of competition in 1925, finishing the year 8-4, but they struggled to attract paying customers. In fact, tickets for games at the Polo Grounds were routinely handed out free of charge to fill empty seats. It wasn’t until a visit from Illinois superstar Harold “Red” Grange, who had made the mid-season leap from college to the Chicago Bears, that the Giants could declare a profit and decide to move forward with their franchise. The possibility of the Giants dissolving after one season was very real, as nine other franchises had disbanded or left the NFL during or after their inaugural season of play.

The Polo Grounds seating capacity for football was normally around 55,000, but the demand to see the already legendary Grange was so irresistible that temporary seating was put in place in the outfield and standing room only tickets were issued. The gate was estimated to be in excess of 70,000 and photographs from the event support this claim. The only other time the Polo Grounds was that full was for the game against the Notre Dame All Stars in 1930. Not even the five post-season contests the Giants hosted in the Polo Grounds in later years against stalwart franchises Chicago, Green Bay and Washington had as many.

Irony reared its head just a few short months later when Grange’s manager, Charles C. Pyle, found a loophole in the contract with the Bears and signed Grange. Pyle prematurely leased Yankee Stadium before he even had a team. But Pyle had Grange so he had leverage. When Pyle approached Carr on the idea of expansion in New York, Mara and March balked. The prospect of having a team with Grange playing within walking distance of the Polo Grounds would spell the Giants doom. As tempting as it was to have Grange headlining the marquee in New York, Carr had no choice but to follow the precedent he’d set the prior season in the dispute between Frankford and Pottsville. Carr upheld Mara’s claim to having “exclusive right to anything in New York.” Being spurned but resolute, Pyle formed his own league to feature his star player, the first-ever American Football League (AFL).

This was now a league-wide threat for Carr and his constituents. The AFL attempted, and sometimes did, lure players from the established but still tenuous NFL. The Giants lost both their best lineman Century Milstead and head coach Robert Folwell to the upstart league. Part of Carr’s response to the new threat was to reinstate the Pottsville franchise, being fearful that team would sign with Pyle. Also, he forged an agreement with the Giants to allow a franchise in Brooklyn. Carr feared the AFL establishing two franchises in New York and wanted to beat them to the punch. He assured the Giants that the Brooklyn team’s schedule would not conflict with the Giants. This was keen foresight on Carr’s part, as the AFL then placed a franchise in nearby Newark, New Jersey. Just one year after having a single professional football team in New York, the metropolitan area now had four! The man most responsible for saving the Giants franchise in 1925, Red Grange, now threatened to render them irrelevant.

The 1926 season played out much like the one before for the Giants. Their 8-4-1 record was similar and so was their attendance. With no draw like Grange to fill the house and player salaries increasing with the competing league, the Giants finished in the red financially. They did win the war against Pyle however. Following the season, Mara and March hosted a game at Yankee Stadium against the AFL Champion Philadelphia Quakers. The motivated sixth-place Giants team manhandled the Quakers at the Polo Grounds 31-0, leaving no doubt as to which league was superior. Fortunately the crowning of the NFL champion was not business as usual. All was calm and everyone was in agreement when the title was bestowed upon Chamberlin’s 14-1-2 Frankford team. It was his fourth championship with his third team in only five seasons, a feat that has yet to be equaled.

Contraction and Contrition

The AFL disappeared just as quickly as it emerged. Although the Yankees drew well wherever they went, the rest of the league seemed to go unnoticed. The debts incurred by the NFL teams were a fraction of those compared to the ones suffered by the AFL. The Giants fortunes seemed to turn around quickly following that boastful triumph over the Quakers.

The dissolution of the nine-team AFL was a significant coup for the NFL, which had fielded 22 teams in 1926. The available talent was spread thin over the total of 31 teams in operation between the two leagues. A series of difficult ownership meetings that off season resulted in the contraction of the NFL. Gone were sentimental favorites with Ohio League roots like Canton, Akron, Hammond and Columbus. It was just not practical for the league’s survival to maintain franchises in locations lacking growth potential. For the NFL to become a big-time league it had to play in big-time cities, and having better players on those teams improved the quality of the product on the field.

The NFL would field 12 teams for the 1927 season. Ten were NFL survivors of the great purge of 1926, plus the return of the Cleveland Bulldogs following a year of suspended operations. Pyle’s Yankees team, which had the distinction of becoming the forty-first franchise in the APFA/NFL’s seventh season of operation, was the sole newcomer from the now-defunct AFL . The only small market team continuing on was publically-owned Green Bay.

Part of the consolidation directly benefitted the Giants. The Brooklyn Horsemen disbanded, but Carr kept its charter active. It was awarded to Mara as payment for unresolved debts. Soon after, Pyle returned to Carr’s office seeking admission to the NFL. This time Mara and March had no objections. Mara leased the former Brooklyn charter to Pyle, who would continue to feature Red Grange at Yankee Stadium. But the Football Yankees schedule would be tightly restricted. The Yankees would primarily be a traveling team, and their few home games would not coincide with Giants home games. Lastly, the season would end with a home-and-home competition for the City Championship.

With Pyle being reduced from threat to nuisance, the focus of the New York Giants was now on team building. Having less competition and a larger talent pool to select from, Mara confidently told March, “I don’t care what it costs but get the players you need. I want a winner this year.”

March’s vision was simple and the approach primal. After installing Earl Pottieger the Giants third head coach in just their third season, this Giants team would be built for power and control both sides of the line of scrimmage. The roster was composed mostly of veterans and was unusually deep; there would be little drop-off in performance when a sub was called upon.

Joe Alexander and George Murtagh, New York Giants (1927)

Joe Alexander and George Murtagh – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Mickey Murtagh returned at center from the 1926 team. Hec Garvey and Al Nesser were well-traveled and experienced guards. Nesser was familiar to March as he was one of the seven famed Nesser brothers who played for Carr’s Columbus Panhandles in the Ohio League. They were professional football’s original “royal family” and their reputation was rock solid. Legendary Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne competed against them as a member of the Massilon Tigers and famously stated, “Getting hit by a Nesser is like falling off a moving train.” Al brought championship experience, having been a member of the 1920 Akron Pros. Joe “Doc” Alexander, a remnant from the inaugural 1925 Giants, backed them up when available, as his medical practice demanded much of his time.

The left tackle was one of the largest and toughest players in all of professional football, Steve Owen. March brought Owen to the Giants the prior year after observing him as a member of the 1925 Kansas City Cowboys. The Cowboys had visited the Polo Grounds that season and later served as the Giants barnstorming team after the regular season. Owen was a man who relished having his hand in the dirt, “We were pretty much a smash and shove gang. We were bone crushers, not fancy Dans.” Wilbur “Pete” Henry, a member of the 1922 and 1923 champion Canton Bulldogs, served as the right tackle for the early portion of the season. The sub for Owen and Henry was Dick Stahlman.

The athletic Chuck Corgan, who had been a teammate of Owen in Kansas City, was a good receiving end. On the other side was the rookie wunderkind Cal Hubbard. At 6’4” and 245 pounds, he was the largest member of a team stocked with big men. But it was his unusual speed and agility that made him one-of-a-kind. He did more than just set the edge for end runs. Hubbard would routinely knock his counterpart on his back and continue his path of destruction downfield, springing Giant ball carriers for long gains. He was also a premier defender, patrolling the line of scrimmage as an end or prototype linebacker. His ascension to stardom was as brutal as it was quick. Wellington Mara recalled Hubbard years later, “You could tell when Cal hit a man. You would hear it on the bench – a hard, dull boom.”

The backfield may have lacked the notoriety of the group blocking for them, but it was talented and versatile. The mainstays were tailback Hinkey Haines and fullback Jack McBride, both members of the 1925 Giants. They complimented one-another with a blend of power and speed. McBride was the power back who bulled through the line while Haines rushed around the corner with elusiveness and speed. Atypical of the common trend though, the fullback McBride was the Giants primary passer, whereas the tailback for most teams performed that role. McBride was also the primary kicker, whether from a drop-kick or placement. The versatile Doug Wycoff subbed both positions. Mule Wilson was the lead blocking back, and he was backed up by Jack Hagerty, who was moved from the halfback position he’d played during the 1926 season. A veteran presence was provided by the former Ohio Leaguer Joe Guyon, who played multiple roles including wingback. Guyon had been a teammate of Jim Thorpe’s with the Canton Bulldogs in the Ohio League in 1919 and also with the NFL’s Oorang Indians in 1921 and 1922. Phil White served as a utility sub for halfback and fullback.

Power Football

Steve Owen and Cal Hubbard, New York Giants (1927)

Steve Owen and Cal Hubbard – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Following a dress rehearsal against the Orange Athletic Club, the Giants opened their regular-season campaign by disappointing 7,500 Providence fans with a stifling 8-0 victory over the Steam Roller. The local press lauded the Giants “great forward wall” and singled out Cal Hubbard, “He put on one of the greatest displays of line work ever seen on a Providence gridiron.” The rookie set up New York’s only touchdown by blocking a punt that Owen recovered at the Providence 2-yard line. Hubbard was also instrumental in limiting the home team to five first downs.

The defense continued its good work at Cleveland the following week, but the offense sputtered. It was surprising that only 3,000 fans attended given that it was their first opportunity to witness the home debut of rookie passing sensation Benny Friedman. Friedman moved the ball well but the Giants defense was stout when most needed. Doug Wycoff returned a punt 70 yards for New York, but the rest of the special teams performance was dreadful. The Giants missed five field goals and left Cleveland with a 0-0 tie.

Following a 19-0 win in front of 5,000 fans in Pottsville, where New York’s subs enjoyed plenty of second-half playing time, the Giants returned home to the Polo Grounds, unfortunately to second billing.

New York Giants vs Cleveland Bulldogs (October 16, 1927)In the re-match against Cleveland, Friedman arrived several days ahead of his Bulldog teammates and was lavished with several honors, not the least of which was a gala event in his honor at the Hotel Majestic. Despite this being just his fourth professional game, he was easily one of the NFL’s marquis attractions among the likes of newsreel sensations Red Grange and Ernie Nevers. The Giants even printed the tickets for the game to read: “N.Y. Giants vs Benny Friedman’s Bulldogs”.

All of the pomp may seem excessive, but to his credit, Friedman lived up to the billing. Even as a rookie he was audacious in his play calling, throwing the ball on first down and from deep in his own territory when the common practice at the time would call for conservative line plunges or a punt. Although the crowd at the Polo Grounds was not nearly as large as the one to see Grange two years earlier, the Giants had to be pleased with the turnstile count of 25,000.

The Giants strong line controlled most of the first half, but the game was tied 0-0 at halftime after Jack McBride missed a field goal attempt. The third quarter began with an exchange of punts, then Cleveland’s speed got the better of New York’s muscle. Friedman connected on a 35-yard pass to Tiny Feather down to the Giants 30-yard line, followed by a 15-yard completion to Jim Simmons to the 14. Friedman and Simmons alternated rushes until Simmons went over for the score from the one-yard line. This was the only score of the game (Friedman was wide on his point-after attempt) and the first of the season yielded by the Giants. But Cleveland won the game 6-0 and the Giants fell to 2-1-1. Friedman ended the afternoon 11-17 passing, which was very respectable for the time and unheard of in a winning effort. Normally that many pass attempts came in desperate, come-from-behind situations.

Although New York fielded a quality team, something was amiss. Aside from the poor tackling exhibited in the second half of the loss to Cleveland, the running game on offense was sporadic. The Giants made a move by sending the powerful but slowing Pete Henry to Pottsville. They then signed Century Milstead, who was idle after a one-year hiatus with the rival AFL’s Philadelphia team. He had been the best lineman on New York’s 1925 team.

Al Nesser, New York Giants (1927)

Al Nesser – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The infusion of relative youth and tangible athleticism was appreciably noticed during a home-and-home weekend against the defending-champion Yellow Jackets. As was their custom, Frankford played their home games on Saturday as Sunday spectacles were prohibited by local blue laws. Often they would follow up a Saturday game at Frankford Stadium with an away game against the same team on Sunday. The rushing game was greatly improved, as the Philadelphia press cited Haines for “having an outstanding game” for New York in their 13-0 victory.

At the Polo Grounds rematch, a 20-point second quarter for New York was highlighted by a spectacular defensive play that brought the crowd of 15,000 to its feet. Jack Hagerty intercepted a pass at his own 47-yard line, sidestepped two Yellow Jackets, cut up-field, stiff-armed a would-be tackler along the sideline, and eluded several others until he was dragged down from behind at the 3-yard line for a 50-yard return. Phil White went over for the touchdown and the Giants subs held Frankford off the scoreboard in the second half to finish the 27-0 victory.

The following week saw a physical, altercation-filled scrum with Pottsville. The New York defense was dominant once again, registering a safety in a 16-0 win. The 20,000 Polo Grounds faithful must have been amused when a second safety was awarded after the Maroons punter had lined up beyond the end line to receive the snap despite several warnings to correct his position from the closest official.

The Giants played host to another of the NFL’s early stars the next week when Ernie Nevers arrived with his traveling Duluth Eskimos. They represented Duluth in name only, having played in the city only once in 1926. The Eskimos counted on lucrative visitor’s shares of the gate by playing an all-road schedule in large venues such as the Polo Grounds. The 15,000 who showed up may have been a mild disappointment to the Giants, but it was far more than Duluth could realistically hope for in northern Minnesota.

Jack McBride, New York Giants (1927)

Jack McBride – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Nevers was the second most famous player in the league after Grange, and some observers believed him to be of equal talent. Nevers was a triple threat on offense, played rock solid defense and could be counted on to play close to the full 60 minutes every game, occasionally completing the duration without a trip to the bench. Glenn “Pop” Warner, who coached Nevers at Stanford famously called him, “the football player without a fault.”

The Giants powerful defense did yield yardage to Nevers, who was cited by the press for giving “a strenuous effort,” but again refused to yield a point. The Eskimos penetrated the New York 30-yard line five times but came away empty. Three of those drives ended with interceptions while the other two saw them halted on downs. Jack McBride engineered three scoring drives for New York. The final one featured an exclamation-point 25-yard touchdown pass to Hinkey Haines to close out the 21-0 win.

At 6-1-1, the Giants may have been pleased with their place in the standings. But a three-way race with the Packers and Bears for the number one spot in the league made it clear that there was no time to rest on laurels. Tuesday was Election Day and the Providence Steam Roller was coming to the Polo Grounds, while on the other side of the Harlem River the Bears would be visiting their old teammate Red Grange and the Yankees. This would be Grange’s first game back after tearing a ligament in his knee at Cubs Park back in October, and it was the Yankees first home game of the season.

The Giants played in front of their largest house of the year; 38,000 fans showed up for a football triple header, as the Giants and Steam Roller played following two high school games. The headliners did not disappoint. The Giants capitalized on three big plays in all three phases of the game: Mule Wilson’s 54-yard interception return, Jack McBride’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Jack Hagerty and Hagerty’s 53-yard punt return. Most of the fans probably forgave the Giants for missing three of their four point-after attempts in the 25-0 victory after learning the rival Yankees, with a limping Grange, upset Chicago 26-6. End Ray Flaherty, who would join the Giants in 1928, starred for the Yankees that afternoon by hauling in three touchdown receptions. The Giants now held the top spot in the NFL and had the inside track to the championship if they could win out the rest of the way.

The Giants had next been scheduled to play the Buffalo Bisons, but the Bisons disbanded mid-season. Instead, the Giants played a non-league exhibition at Staten Island against the Stapletons. Showing no fear of travel or injury, the Giants then visited Boston to play another exhibition game against Pierre Marquette the Saturday before a crucial league contest against the Chicago Cardinals, who were now coached by Chamberlin. The Cardinals held no advantage as they played at Frankford on Saturday as well.

The Giants jumped all over the visiting Cardinals early, scoring three touchdowns in the game’s first 10 minutes. New York’s subs played to a stalemate as the Giants coasted to a critically important 28-7 victory that maintained their slim advantage over the Bears who were next on the docket. Chicago was in a second place tie with Green Bay, but both of the Packers losses were to the Bears so the Packers only hope for first place would be both teams above them collapsing.

Strength Versus Strength

Again, the Giants participated in a non-league exhibition at Staten Island the Thursday prior to their biggest game of the season. The 8-1-1 Giants knew owner-player-coach Halas would have his 7-2-1 Bears ready to go, as he had been in this situation many times before. A Chicago win would give the teams matching 8-2-1 records and the Bears a late-season head-to-head victory. Should both teams win out after that, history had already demonstrated Halas’ persuasiveness among the league’s owners in regard to championship votes. Ironically, the situation could even have been in reverse. In the event of a tie, the Giants would be the team in position to challenge the Bears to a rematch. Knowing the precedent set in 1921 with the Bears and Buffalo, would Halas have even accepted and risked a title he may have believed already belonged to him?

Were it not for miserable cold and the threat of snow, the crowd of 15,000 at the Polo Grounds probably would have been much larger, as the local press had well-publicized the significance of the game. Although no official NFL championship game yet existed, this was as close to it as you could get. The winner in all likelihood would end up being crowned champion, even if they had to wait until April for it to be declared official!

If any team were capable of matching the Giants on the line of scrimmage it was the Bears. They had two future Hall of Famers at the tackle positions: Link Lyman and Ed Healy. Center George Trafton was an All-Pro. The backfield featured future Hall of Fame halfback Paddy Driscoll and tailback/quarterback Dutch Sternaman. Sternaman co-coached the Bears with Halas.

The Bears front line asserted itself early. After receiving the opening kickoff, Chicago pounded away at New York’s defense, moving the chains until facing a first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Three line plunges set the Bears up with fourth-and-goal on the one. Halas wanted six and ordered Sternaman to go for it. Fullback Jack White took the ball on a handoff, but as he attempted to vault over the wall of crashing bodies, White was hammered in mid-air and knocked backward by Al Nesser.

Hinkey Haines and Jack McBride, New York Giants (1927)

Hinkey Haines and Jack McBride – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The scoring threat was thwarted, but New York was still in trouble. Not surprising for the era, the Giants lined up in punt formation of first down. Mule Wilson was deep to receive the snap. The up-back Hinkey Haines cautioned him to line up correctly with his heels in front of the end line, recalling the incident with Pottsville’s punt several weeks earlier, and requested that the referee wipe mud off of the ball with a towel for a more accurate snap. Chicago realized the predicament the Giants were in and jammed nine men on the line of scrimmage. While the official wiped the ball down, Haines discreetly deepened his position a few steps and surveyed Chicago’s deployment as he called the signals. Haines received a direct snap and lofted a perfect pass to Chuck Corgan over the unguarded middle. The Bears had only two men deep and did not take Corgan down until he had advanced beyond midfield to Chicago’s 41-yard line.

Although the Bears kept the Giants off of the scoreboard, the stunning 58-yard play not only tipped the field position back to the Giants favor, it also quelled the surge of momentum the Bears had in their favor with the long opening drive. The action largely took place around mid-field for the remainder of the first half with the teams exchanging punts. At the half, the game was deadlocked 0-0.

The third quarter began much the same way, but the Giants received a jolt in an unlikely fashion. On the Giants second possession of the half, Halas attempted to clip Joe Guyon. Guyon had heard him coming though. As Halas launched himself, Guyon pivoted and rammed his knees into Hala’s chest, sending him to cold turf breathless. As Halas was helped off the field with two broken ribs, Guyon slyly told his Giants captain Steve Owen, “That fellow ought to know you can’t sneak up behind an Indian.”

The ensuing 15-yard penalty on Halas was the spark New York had been looking for. Jack McBride punctured the Chicago front for a total of 53-yards on the 60-yard drive and went over for the touchdown from the two on a fourth-and-goal. The point-after was missed so the score held at 6-0. Another exchange of punts had the Bears pinned on their own two, and a poor punt only moved the ball out to the 30. McBride mixed runs with passes. Three line plunges from goal-to-go gave him his second touchdown of the quarter. And this time the point-after was good. The Giants led 13-0 as the quarter came to an end.

Undeterred, Driscoll took the Bears down the field as he did to start the game. Noticing that the New York front seemed to be growing fatigued, Sternaman kept calling for rushes as Chicago pushed and pounded the ball to the Giants 10-yard line. Here the Bears reached deep into their playbook and changed up their strategy entirely, lining up in a spread formation. Sternaman caught a pass from Laurie Walquist and darted into the end zone. The point after was good and the lead was trimmed to 13-7.

The concluding 10 minutes of action was fierce and physical, both powerful lines traded blows but neither offense could advance until Chicago’s last possession. A trade of punts preceded a last valiant effort by the Bears. The Chicago running game found a few creases and moved into New York territory with the clock running after each carry. The tiring Giant defense was bending and Chicago had the ball on the 17-yard line. Perhaps feeling a sense of desperation with the clock now just under 2:00 or recalling how the Bears last scoring drive ended, Sternaman called the first pass play of the possession. Mule Wilson made the play for New York and intercepted the throw. The Giants ran three plays to run out the clock. The chilled crowd celebrated the thrilling win, but the victors and losers were too spent to react.

“It was the hardest game any of us ever played,” said Steve Owen. “I played sixty minutes at tackle opposite Jim McMillen, who later became a world wrestling champion. When the gun ended the exhausting game, both of us just sat on the ground in the middle of the field. He smiled in a tired way, reached over to me, and we shook hands. We didn’t say a word; we couldn’t. It was fully five minutes before we got up to go to the dressing room.”

Once inside the locker-room, little changed. Hinkey Haines described the ironic scene, “That victory just about gave us the championship, but you’d have thought we all were just given walking papers.”

March tended to his battered victors, “Some of them looked like they’d never walk again.”

The key plays in the first quarter still reverberated. “Al Nesser (who stopped the Bears on fourth-and-goal from the one) was the real hero,” said Century Milstead. “Bare-headed and with no shoulder guards, he just kept submarining their running plays. He was battered but he never quit.” Owen complimented the selling of the fake punt, “Haines called one of the smartest plays I’ve ever seen to win for us. He stage-managed it perfectly.”

The New York Times led off the Monday game summary superlatively: “The Giants powerful forward wall met their equal in the Chicago Bears’ line yesterday and the battle that ensued was one of the most brilliant and savagely fought in the three years of professional football in New York…The play was spirited through sixty minutes of action, both elevens traveling at a fast and furious pace.”

The New York Daily News singled out the Giants touchdown maker: “Jack McBride was the outstanding figure in this grim grid struggle, counting both Giant touchdowns in a wild burst of ground spurning in the third quarter after the first half had been scoreless.”

Settling One Final Score

The Giants truly needed the full week off following their most important triumph in the franchise’s short history. They must have been relieved to not have any exhibition contests interrupt their recovery. The season-ending home-and-home matches with their neighboring Yankees were most likely anti-climactic for most observers. But there is no doubt some within the Giants organization relished watching “arrogance being humbled” first hand as the Giants swept Pyle’s team 14-0 and 13-0 in miserable weather in front of small crowds. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were among the 10,000 fans who braved the snow and sleet to watch the first game at the Polo Grounds in support of Grange’s team. Haines quickly dampened any enthusiasm they may have brought as he returned a first quarter punt 75 yards for a touchdown. Only 8,000 came through the turnstiles the following week to watch the two teams slosh around in the Yankee Stadium mud. Ball handling was treacherous in a fumble-filled contest. Joe Guyon was a featured ball carrier in these two games and contributed significantly to both Giants victories.

To his credit, Grange’s heart was stronger than his damaged knee. He played as long as he could and suffered a beating as the Giants repeatedly gang-tackled him after short gains. He hung tough, finished the first game and came out late in the second only after the outcome had been decided. Unfortunately the fans chose to express their disappointment in his performance by booing him, despite the fact he was the Yankees leading passer and had several good punt returns.

A Team For The Ages

It was a relatively inglorious end to an 11-1-1 season that had been anything but that. Yardage statistics from the 1920’s and early ‘30’s are sketchy. Some beat writers compiled such stats for the teams they covered, as did some teams. Over the years, historians have attempted to make calculations from news stories, but all such attempts are fragmentary and therefore not officially recognized. Jack McBride may have led the Giants in both passing and rushing in 1927. There is no doubt he led the Giants in passing yardage by a wide margin; the rushing total could be up for debate. He and Hinkey Haines carried the ball close to the same number of times. Given Haines’ break–away ability, a missing long gainer or two could easily tip the scale in his favor.

Hinkey Haines, New York Giants (1927)

Hinkey Haines, New York Giants (1927)

Scoring records are reliable though. McBride led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with six. Including his two field goals and league-leading 15 point-afters, McBride also led the NFL in total scoring. McBride finished second (behind Friedman) in touchdown passes with six. His favorite target on scoring plays was Haines, who finished tied for first in the NFL with Ray Flaherty with four scoring receptions.

The post-season accolades, albeit diverse and unofficial, were abundant and adulatory. Various media outlets that covered professional football would comprise their own All Pro-style lists of players after each season. Not surprisingly, the most consistent over the early years was the daily paper from the football-crazed town of northern Wisconsin, The Green Bay Press-Gazette.

New York Giants who appeared on more than one first team list included: Cal Hubbard, End; Steve Owen, Tackle (though sometimes on these lists he was slotted in the Guard position); Jack McBride, Fullback (surprisingly usurping the great Ernie Nevers on occasion here); and Al Nesser, Guard.

Of course, the ultimate personal recognition is receiving a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio. Four members of the 1927 Giants have their likeness on display there for future generations of fans to admire: Steve Owen, Cal Hubbard, Joe Guyon and Wilbur “Pete” Henry.

In terms of perpetuity, New York set a record that realistically is not likely ever to be broken: the Giants shut out 10 of their 13 opponents, surpassing the nine shutouts by the Canton Bulldogs in 1922. Cumulatively, the Giants only gave up 20 points all season (Canton only gave up 15 points over 12 games in 1922).

The legacy of the 1927 Giants was power and control at the line of scrimmage. They were built to succeed in an era where the rules and equipment demanded conservative play in battles of field position. The few times New York exhibited weakness was when encountering speed (the two games they failed to win were the loss and tie against Friedman’s Bulldogs) and when they were spread horizontally (the touchdown they surrendered against the Bears.) After he retired, Red Grange summed up the 1927 champions succinctly: “It was the best football team of its time. Their line beat the hell out of you and wore you down, and their backs could move the ball. But they would have been passed off the field by the top teams of the 30’s.”

Jan 202014
 
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Emlen Tunnell (45), Tom Landry (49); New York Giants at Cleveland Browns (October 1, 1950)

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

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

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

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

The Father of Modern Professional Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unlikely Protagonist

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

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

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

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

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

The Umbrella Opens

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

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

Single Wing, A-Formation, 5-3 Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rivalry That Changed Professional Football: New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part II)
Jun 242013
 
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Steve Owen

Steve Owen

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wrassler from the Indian Territory

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

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

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

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

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

A Champion as a Giants Player

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

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

Steve Owen

Steve Owen

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

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

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

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

A Champion as a Giants Coach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1934 New York Giants

1934 New York Giants

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

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

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

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

Steve Owen, New York Giants, 1941 Pro Bowl

Steve Owen (Middle) at 1941 Pro Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

The Innovator

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

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

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

Steve Owen, Ken Strong, and Ward Cuff in 1939

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

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

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

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

Steve Owen, New York Giants (1939)

Steve Owen at the Blackboard in 1939

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

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

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

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

Owen Comes Home

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

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

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

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

Steve Owen and Miriam Sweeney in 1935

Steve Owen and Miriam Sweeney in 1935

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

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

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

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