September 22, 2010

1940: Rookie George McAfee Keys Bears to Romp Over Packers

When HB George McAfee was chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the 1940 draft out of Duke, the Chicago Bears traded three players for his rights. It was a move that the Bears and their owner/Head Coach George Halas never regretted. In a single-platoon era when all-around skills were especially valued, McAfee could run, pass, and kick - but the running was his most significant asset.

The 6’0”, 177-pound halfback made an immediate impression in training camp and the preseason. He won an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers with a 73-yard punt return in the last minute. On September 22, 1940 he made an even bigger impression as the Bears opened their regular season against the arch-rival Packers at Green Bay’s City Stadium.

The Packers, under founder and Head Coach Curly Lambeau, had placed first in the Western Division in both 1938 and ’39 and were the defending NFL champions. They had opened their regular season the preceding week and defeated the Eagles 27-20. There was a then-record crowd of 23,557 on hand to see the Packers face the club most likely to threaten their perch atop the division.

Green Bay scored first, on a 25-yard field goal by Tiny Engebretsen. But on the ensuing kickoff, McAfee ran 93 yards for a touchdown – his first time touching the ball in a regular season contest.

The Packers would get a further taste of McAfee’s abilities as the game wore on. In the third quarter, with the Bears leading 21-10, he tossed an eight-yard touchdown pass to another noteworthy rookie, end Ken Kavanaugh. Then in the fourth quarter, McAfee scored his second touchdown of the contest on a nine-yard run.

Green Bay’s strong offense piled up plenty of yards, outgaining the Bears 333 to 290 and running off 19 first downs to Chicago’s 5. But the Packers also turned the ball over nine times and the Bears capitalized by making big plays. In addition to McAfee’s heroics, HB Ray Nolting returned the second half kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown and Kavanaugh scored a second TD to cap the scoring in the fourth quarter on a 39-yard pass play from QB Bob Snyder. Chicago was up by 21-3 in the third quarter before Green Bay managed to score again, on a 35-yard touchdown pass from tailback Arnie Herber to star end Don Hutson. But that was it for the Packers – the Bears won decisively, 41-10.

The pattern was established during McAfee’s rookie season of inserting him selectively during a game – Halas deployed him when his big-play abilities could be put to best use. He came to be referred to as “One-Play McAfee” both because he was typically limited to 30 minutes per game, and for his ability to turn a game on a very few touches of the football.

The Bears, with a deep and talented team and revamped T-formation, did indeed manage to place first in the Western Division, with an 8-3 record to Green Bay’s second place 6-4-1, and demolished Washington in the NFL Championship game by a 73-0 score. McAfee carried the ball 47 times for 253 yards (a team-leading 5.4-yard average gain) and two touchdowns, caught 7 passes for 117 yards (16.7 avg.) and threw two scoring passes. Kickoff and punt return statistics weren’t yet kept (that would begin the following year), but McAfee’s opening-game kickoff return for a touchdown was one of just three in the NFL that year. He also intercepted four passes on defense.

McAfee would have his greatest season in 1941, placing second in rushing (474 yards), rushing touchdowns (5, tied with three others), all-purpose yards (999), and points scored (72). He tied Green Bay’s Hutson for the most touchdowns with 12 and his six interceptions were right behind the two league leaders (the Cardinals’ Marshall Goldberg and Pittsburgh’s Art Jones with 7 apiece). Moreover, McAfee averaged 11.9 yards every time he touched the ball, over three yards more than league runner-up Jones (8.2).

After that, McAfee went into military service for three years during World War II, returning to play in three games in 1945 at age 27. He played until 1950, a total of eight seasons (in three of which he played three or fewer games), and his career numbers are hardly overwhelming. He gained a total of 1685 yards rushing, on 341 attempts for a 4.9 average with 21 touchdowns, and never had more than 92 carries in a season. In an era when backs typically weren’t a big part of the passing game (and teams didn’t pass as often in any case), McAfee had 85 catches for 1359 yards and a 16.0 average with 11 TDs. By far, his career high for pass receptions in a season was 32, for 492 yards and a score, in 1947.

McAfee returned 112 punts (aside from his rookie season), and his 12.8 average is still the career high for any NFL player with at least 75 returns. Two were returned for touchdowns. Used more sparingly to run back kickoffs, he had 18 for a 27.1 average and two TDs (again, the average doesn’t count his rookie season, prior to kick returns being compiled as an official statistic). McAfee also intercepted 25 passes on defense, twice picking off six in a season and with two returned for touchdowns.

Both left-handed and left-footed, as a passer McAfee tossed three touchdown passes in six career completions and as a punter averaged 36.7 yards on 39 punts, including a 79-yard boot in 1941.

The regard with which he was held by his own coach, “Papa Bear” George Halas, and other coaches around the league was unquestionably high. Green Bay’s Lambeau referred to McAfee as “the best and most dangerous man the Packers have ever faced.” Philadelphia’s Greasy Neale, who coached Hall of Fame halfback Steve Van Buren, called McAfee “the greatest plunging and quick-opening back I have ever seen.” Bears assistant Hunk Anderson said, “I played with (Notre Dame’s George) Gipp and I saw plenty of (Red) Grange, but McAfee is better than either one of them.”

The numbers in any individual category might look insignificant, but they add up to a versatile player who could do everything well. McAfee was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966.