December 28, 2009

1958: Colts Defeat Giants in Overtime for NFL Title in “Greatest Game”

Perhaps no pro football game has received more attention than the NFL Championship game played at Yankee Stadium in New York on December 28, 1958. While it has been characteristically referred to as “the Greatest Game Ever Played”, such a statement is debatable – while it was certainly a very good game, there’s plenty of competition for that highly subjective title. But it was the most significant game in terms of fueling the rise of pro football and cementing its place on network television and in the national consciousness.

The host Giants, coached by Jim Lee Howell, had won the title two years previously and typically contended in the Eastern Conference. They had not had an easy road to the championship game, having won the last four contests of the season to end up in a tie with Cleveland. The last win had in fact been over the Browns in a nail-biting, must-win contest that came down to a late 49-yard field goal by Pat Summerall. The Giants had to then host the Browns once again in a tie-breaking playoff, and won once more, 10-0.

Baltimore was less well known nationally than the Giants, having only come into existence in 1953, and was in the postseason for the first time thanks to the coaching of Weeb Ewbank, who was in his fifth year. They boasted QB Johnny Unitas, who in his third season led the league in touchdown passes (19) and was already being referred to as one of the premier players at his position. Split end Raymond Berry tied for the NFL lead in pass receptions (56), and the Colts could run the ball formidably with FB Alan “The Horse” Ameche and halfbacks Lenny Moore (a great receiver out of the backfield as well) and L.G. Dupre.

There were 64,185 fans at Yankee Stadium and another 40 million watching on tv as the Giants took the early lead on a 36-yard Summerall field goal. But the Colts dominated play for the most part in the first half, and scored twice in the second quarter – on a two-yard run by Ameche and a 15-yard pass play from Unitas to Berry – to take a 14-3 lead into halftime.

It appeared that Unitas and the Colts were going to take decisive control of the game on their first possession of the third quarter, driving to the New York three yard line. But the Giants defense held at that point, and when the Colts went for it on fourth down, LB Cliff Livingston nailed Ameche for a four-yard loss. Momentum now shifted to the Giants, and QB Charley Conerly hit end Kyle Rote on a deep slant; he fumbled at the Baltimore 25, but HB Alex Webster, trailing the play, picked up the loose football and carried it down to the one. FB Mel Triplett scored from there to cut the Colts lead to 14-10.

On the next possession, Conerly connected on a pass to end Bob Schnelker for 46 yards, setting up the go-ahead touchdown on a 15-yard pass from Conerly to HB Frank Gifford. Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, New York led 17-14. The solid Giants defense stopped the next two Baltimore drives. With the clock dipping under three minutes, the Giants faced a third-and-four situation at their own 40 yard line; a first down would all but nail down the win. Conerly handed off to Gifford, who was hit hard by DE Gino Marchetti (who broke his leg on the play) and seemed very close to the necessary yardage; the officials placed the ball just short, and Coach Howell elected to punt.

Don Chandler’s punt was a good one that the Colts were forced to fair catch at their 14 yard line. Now it was Unitas driving the Colts down the field. On a third-and-ten play, he hit Moore for a first down at the 25. With the Giants double-teaming the multi-talented Moore, Unitas found Berry for a diving catch at the 35. Unitas kept going to Berry, who caught three passes for 62 yards on the drive to the New York 13. With the clock ticking down to 30 seconds, Steve Myhra kicked a 20-yard field goal (pictured below) to tie the game at 17-17 and set the stage for the first “sudden death” overtime in NFL history.

The Giants won the toss and received, but came up short on a third down Conerly bootleg and had to punt. Baltimore got the ball on their 20 yard line, and from there Unitas directed one of the most famous drives in pro football history. First, L.G. Dupre swept for 11 yards. After a pass intended for Moore was batted away by Giants defensive halfback Lindon Crow, Ameche gained two yards on a draw play. On third-and-eight, Unitas passed to Ameche who just made enough yardage for the first down.

Dupre ran again, but then Unitas was sacked by DT Dick Modzelewski. With a third-and-15 situation, Unitas found Berry on a 20-yard pass play to keep the drive going. Another big gain followed as Ameche rumbled for 23 yards on a trap play to the New York 21 yard line. After a short gain by Dupre, it was Unitas to Berry once again for 12 yards and a first down at the Giants 8. Ameche ran for a yard, and then Unitas surprised the Giants with a six-yard pass to end Jim Mutscheller that put the ball on the one. From there, Ameche ran in for the score (pictured at bottom) and the Colts had a 23-17 win and the championship.

Johnny Unitas completed 26 of 40 passes for 349 yards with a TD and an interception. Berry was the top receiver with 12 catches for 178 yards and a score, and Lenny Moore had 101 yards on 6 receptions (he had a 60-yard catch in the first half). Alan Ameche led the runners with 65 yards on 14 carries, including the two touchdowns.

For New York, Charley Conerly had a solid performance in completing 10 of 14 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown. Frank Gifford ran for a team-high 60 yards on 12 carries and also led the Giants with three pass receptions, for 14 yards and a TD, although he also fumbled the ball away three times. Kyle Rote accumulated the most pass receiving yards with 76 on two catches, and Bob Schnelker was right behind with 63 yards on his two receptions.

There was plenty of room for second-guessing with a game that was so close and turned on a few key plays. The decision to play for the touchdown rather than a field goal at the end particularly drew speculation, but the fact was that the pass to Mutscheller was a second down play and, with the team on a roll and Myhra not a sure bet to make the kick (the Giants blocked an attempt in the first half), Unitas was not inclined to be too conservative; in this instance, it proved to be a successful strategy and helped to confirm the lanky quarterback’s reputation as a daring field general and skillful clutch performer.

The close calls and second guesses have provided fuel for discussion over the years, but the outstanding performances – especially by Unitas – and the “sudden death” overtime element have long given the game an iconic status. And it surely generated interest in the sport at a time when television was ready to provide more exposure. Maybe, when you put all of the elements together, it truly was “the Greatest Game”.