Jan 202014
 
 January 20, 2014  Posted by  Articles, History
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)
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Jun 242013
 
 June 24, 2013  Posted by  Articles, History
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.

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