December 19, 2009

1948: Eagles Defeat Cardinals in Blizzard for NFL Championship

The NFL championship matchup on December 19, 1948 was a repeat of the previous year, but the weather was not. The field was frozen when the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Cardinals met in ’47 at Comiskey Park, but in this instance a heavy winter storm dumped snow on Philadelphia all day. While a protective tarpaulin had been placed over the field, the snow had accumulated so heavily on it that the players had to assist the grounds crew in its removal a half hour before the game. Even then, the turf at Shibe Park was completely covered at the kickoff.

Eagles Head Coach Greasy Neale was in favor of postponing the contest, but Commissioner Bert Bell, citing the sellout crowd (28,864 actually showed up) and the national radio audience, suggested that the players decide. To Bell’s satisfaction, both teams wanted to play, and play they did. The Commissioner ruled that the first down chain would be used, but there would be no measurements – the referee would rule on all first downs. Ropes were tied to stakes to mark the sidelines.

The game started a half hour late, at two o’clock rather than the scheduled 1:30. Fortunately, Eagles star halfback Steve Van Buren arrived about an hour before the game – he had gone back to bed when he saw the heavy snow in the morning, thinking the contest would be postponed, but got up and made it to Shibe Park in time (some accounts claim that a nervous Coach Neale phoned him). He was the key to the Eagles offense and the NFL’s leading rusher for the third time in four seasons (945 yards). After losing the first game of the season and tying the second, Philadelphia had put together eight straight wins on the way to a 9-2-1 record. Aside from Van Buren, the offense boasted the league’s leading passer in QB Tommy Thompson, speedy halfback Bosh Pritchard, end Pete Pihos, and an excellent line.

The Cardinals, defending NFL champions, had won the Western Division with an 11-1 tally and were considered five point favorites against Philadelphia. They had an outstanding backfield of QB Paul Christman, halfbacks Charley Trippi and Elmer Angsman, and FB Pat Harder. Ends Mal Kutner and Bill Dewell were solid receivers. On this day, however, they were without the injured Christman.

The Eagles attempted a big play on their very first possession, in spite of the weather, with Thompson firing for an apparent 65-yard touchdown pass to end Jack Ferrante. However, Ferrante was penalized for being offside and the play came back. Neither team was able to mount any sort of passing attack for the rest of the contest.

Both teams turned the ball over three times in what became a battle for field position and ball control. Tough defense, and missed field goals, prevented either squad from scoring until the biggest turnover of the game late in the third quarter. Joe Muha of the Eagles had booted a punt that went out of bounds at Chicago’s 19 yard line. On the first play, a mixup in the Cardinals backfield caused backup QB Ray Mallouf to fumble the handoff to Angsman and Eagles middle guard Bucko Kilroy recovered at the 17. On the last play of the third quarter, Pritchard ran for six yards to the 11 yard line. Muha, the fullback as well as punter, plowed for three yards to start the final period and then QB Thompson gained three. Van Buren rumbled the final five yards, diving into the snowy end zone, for the only touchdown of the game (pictured). Cliff Patton’s extra point made the score 7-0, and the Eagles defense made it hold up.

The passing statistics were negligible. “One-Eyed” Tommy Thompson completed just two of 12 passes for 7 yards with two interceptions. For the Cardinals, Mallouf, Trippi, and QB Charley Eikenberg combined for three completions in 11 attempts for 35 yards and an interception. In the battle for ball control, it had been the ground game that mattered most, and the Eagles outrushed Chicago (225 yards to 96) and accumulated the most first downs (16 to 6). Van Buren picked up 98 yards on 26 carries, while Pritchard had gained 67 yards on 16 attempts and Thompson accounted for 50 yards on 11 rushes. By contrast, the leading rusher for the Cardinals was Angsman, who had decimated Philadelphia the year before, with 33 yards on 10 attempts.

The championship was the first for the Eagles, in their second try, and they would be back again the next year. For the Cardinals, however, there would be a long playoff drought that lasted until 1974, well after the team had relocated to St. Louis.