December 26, 2010

1960: Van Brocklin & Bednarik Spur Eagles Past Packers for NFL Title

The NFL Championship game on December 26, 1960 featured two clubs that had not vied for titles since the 1940s and had not been expected to contend in ’60. The Philadelphia Eagles, leaders of the Eastern Conference with a 10-2 record, had been perennial also-rans since winning back-to-back championships in 1948 and ’49. Representing the Western Conference, the Green Bay Packers had been through many years in the doldrums after last going the distance in 1944.

The Eagles had steadily improved since the arrival of Buck Shaw as head coach in 1958 who, at age 61, was hoping to retire with a championship. 34-year-old QB Norm Van Brocklin (pictured above), who also came to Philadelphia in ’58 in a deal with the Rams, was seeking to do likewise. The quarterback known as The Dutchman was the key to the offense and had an MVP year in 1960. While the running game was ordinary, the passing attack was not as Van Brocklin had a good corps of receivers in diminutive flanker Tommy McDonald and ends Pete Retzlaff and Bobby Walston. Chuck Bednarik, a former All-Pro linebacker who had moved exclusively to center in recent years, had been forced to play both ways due to injuries in the linebacking corps and provided leadership, as well as outstanding performance, to the defense. Two rookies, HB/FB Ted Dean and LB Maxie Baughan, also contributed to the team’s success.

Green Bay was benefiting from the guidance of second-year Head Coach Vince Lombardi. After posting a 7-5 record in 1959, the first winning tally for the club in 12 years, the Packers had started off at 4-1 in ’60, lost three of four, and then won their final three games to vault past the Lions, 49ers, and Colts with an 8-4 tally. HB/PK Paul Hornung scored a record 176 points and, in combination with FB Jim Taylor, was part of a running attack that ranked second in the league. QB Bart Starr was still a work in progress, the receiving corps good, and the offensive line outstanding. The defense was tough, particularly the line and linebackers.

With the addition of temporary seating, there were 67,352 fans filling Philadelphia’s Franklin Field for the title contest and the weather was sunny and in the mid-40s. Things did not start out well for the Eagles when Van Brocklin tossed a swing pass that HB Bill Barnes couldn’t hold on to and was intercepted by Green Bay DE Bill Quinlan at the Philadelphia 14 yard line. Three running plays gained eight yards, and Lombardi chose to go for the first down on fourth-and-two at the six. The Eagles defense stopped Taylor short and Philadelphia took over on downs.

However, the reprieve was a short one when Dean, at the end of a ten-yard run, fumbled the ball back to the Packers at his own 22. Handing off to Hornung and Taylor, Green Bay got down to the eight yard line, but an offsides penalty backed the Packers up and two passes by Starr into the end zone were incomplete. Hornung kicked a 20-yard field goal to give Green Bay a 3-0 lead.

The Eagles were only able to get one first down during the opening period, but the defense was showing an ability to stop Green Bay’s inside running game in key situations. Heading into the second quarter, the Packers drove into Eagles territory and reached the 14 yard line. Once more the possession stalled at that point and Hornung kicked a 23-yard field goal to make the score 6-0.

Philadelphia’s passing game came alive midway through the second quarter as Van Brocklin completed a 22-yard pass to McDonald down the middle and then threw to McDonald again, this time on an outside route that resulted in a 35-yard touchdown. With Walston’s successful extra point, the Eagles led by a point (McDonald pictured below).

After getting the ball back, Van Brocklin completed a 41-yard pass to Retzlaff to the Green Bay 33. A swing pass to Dean gained 22 more, but the next three passes were incompletions and Philadelphia settled for a 15-yard Walston field goal. With time running out in the first half, the Packers responded with a 73-yard drive to the Eagles’ seven yard line, but Hornung missed a 14-yard field goal attempt on the final play before halftime. Philadelphia held a 10-6 lead at the intermission.

In the third quarter, the Packers once again moved the ball well and faced a third-and-two situation at the Eagles’ 26. In a key play, Hornung was not only stopped short but knocked out of the game when he suffered a shoulder injury after being hit hard by Bednarik. With Green Bay bypassing another field goal attempt (Hornung was at least temporarily unavailable for kicking as well as playing halfback), the Eagles stopped Taylor and regained possession.

It seemed as though the Eagles might add to their lead as Van Brocklin completed passes of 33 yards to McDonald and 25 to Walston. But at the Green Bay four he threw a pass that was intercepted by CB John Symank.

The Packers didn’t move on their next possession, but end Max McGee, who was also the team’s punter, ran out of punt formation for a 35-yard gain to the Philadelphia 46. Starr followed up with a 17-yard pass to TE Gary Knafelc, and after runs by Taylor and HB Tom Moore (Hornung’s replacement) for first downs, McGee caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Starr. Hornung’s kick put the Packers back in the lead by a 13-10 score.

However, Dean returned the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to the Green Bay 39. The Eagles kept the ball on the ground as they drove to a first down, but Van Brocklin was sacked by LB Ray Nitschke for a seven-yard loss. However, The Dutchman recovered with a 13-yard pass to Barnes and then Barnes carried for a five-yard gain and first down at the nine.

With the Packers expecting a pass, Van Brocklin handed off twice to Dean, the second resulting in a five-yard run for a touchdown (pictured below). The successful extra point gave the Eagles a four-point lead with 5:21 to play.

Green Bay battled back, but McGee fumbled after catching a 12-yard pass from Starr at the Philadelphia 48 and Bednarik recovered for the Eagles. Getting the ball back at their own 35 with less than three minutes remaining on the clock, Starr completed four passes on a drive that also included a nine-yard run by Taylor. But at the Philadelphia 22 and with time for only one play, Starr, seeing his deep receivers covered in the end zone, dumped a pass off to Taylor who charged down to the 10, was slowed by DB Bobby Jackson, and then finally wrestled down by Bednarik as time ran out. The Eagles had held on to win, 17-13.

The Packers significantly outgained the Eagles with 401 yards to 296 and had 22 first downs to Philadelphia’s 13. They also turned the ball over just once, to three suffered by Philadelphia. But the Eagles took better advantage of their opportunities.

Norm Van Brocklin completed 9 of 20 passes for 204 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and six of those completions covered 22 yards or more. Tommy McDonald caught three passes for 90 yards and a TD while Bobby Walston also caught three, for 38 yards. Ted Dean led the running game with 54 yards on 13 carries, including the game-winning touchdown, caught a pass for 22 yards, and had the key 58-yard kickoff return.

35-year-old Chuck Bednarik (pictured at right) had an outstanding performance in his two-way role. Of the game’s 142 plays, he was on the field for 139 of them and made several key defensive plays, including the game-clinching stop of Taylor on the last play.

For the Packers, Bart Starr was successful on 21 of 34 passes for 178 yards with a TD and no interceptions, but his longest completion of the day was for 20 yards. Jim Taylor gained 105 yards on 24 carries and accumulated another 46 yards on 6 catches. Paul Hornung ran the ball 11 times for 61 yards and caught four passes for 14 before having to leave the game (other than for placekicking). Gary Knafelc also caught 6 passes and gained 76 yards.

The Packers came back from the title game loss to win the next two NFL championships, and posted an extraordinary five in nine seasons under Lombardi. Things did not go as well for the Eagles. Buck Shaw retired following the title game, as did Van Brocklin. Assistant coach Nick Skorich was elevated to the head coaching job and, while the Eagles with Sonny Jurgensen at quarterback came close to winning the Eastern Conference in ’61, from 1962 on the club fell into a long dry spell. They did not return to the postseason (other than the meaningless Playoff Bowl) until 1978.

Norm Van Brocklin, having gone out on top to conclude his Hall of Fame playing career, had fully expected to succeed Shaw as head coach of the Eagles. When he didn’t, the embittered Dutchman became the first coach of the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961.