December 28, 2011

1947: Cards Beat Eagles for NFL Title in Game of Big Plays

The NFL Championship game on December 28, 1947 featured two teams that were new to the contest. The Chicago Cardinals may have been the NFL’s oldest franchise, dating all the way back to 1899 as a club team, but they had not known much success (one title in 1925, prior to division play and a championship game) and had labored for most of the league’s history in the shadow of the other Chicago team, the Bears. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles were the first team to represent the Eastern Division in the title game other than the Giants or Redskins. Both clubs had built effectively through the draft and were well coached. Sadly, Cards owner Charles Bidwell, who had invested heavily in players (especially heralded rookie HB Charlie Trippi out of Georgia, signed to a then-record $100,000 contract for four years), died in April and didn’t live to see his club vie for the championship.

The Cardinals had gone 9-3 and beaten the second-place Bears in the finale to win the Western Division. Coached by Jimmy Conzelman, the Cards boasted an outstanding backfield that included, in addition to the all-purpose star Trippi, QB Paul Christman, HB Elmer Angsman (pictured above), and FB Pat Harder. Ends Mal Kutner and Bill Dewell were highly effective.

Philadelphia was coached by Earle “Greasy” Neale and had gone 8-4 to end up in a tie atop the division with another upstart team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Eagles won the resulting playoff convincingly by a 21-0 score. HB Steve Van Buren set a new league rushing record (1008 yards) and was the key to the offense that was efficiently run by QB Tommy Thompson. HB Bosh Pritchard provided an outstanding outside rushing counterpoint to Van Buren and the receivers, led by rookie end Pete Pihos, were very good. The line contained outstanding performers in tackles Al Wistert and Vic Sears, guards Bucko Kilroy and Cliff Patton, and center Vic Lindskog.

There were 30,759 fans in attendance on a bitterly cold day and the field at Comiskey Park was frozen. The Cardinals wore sneakers with cork cleats while the Eagles had attempted to sharpen their spikes for better traction. However, the officials declared the footwear illegal when the Cardinals complained and they instead wore flat-soled sneakers.

It proved to be a game liberally highlighted by big plays. The first came when Chicago scored six minutes into the first quarter. Trippi (pictured at right) broke free on a quick-opener for a 44-yard touchdown run, outmaneuvering the last defender, DHB Russ Craft, along the way.

The Eagles, concerned with Christman’s passing ability, crowded the line in an effort to disrupt the aerial attack. While they did so effectively, they also left themselves vulnerable to long gains by the halfbacks if they broke through. Early in the second quarter, Angsman got the ball on a delayed buck into the line and took off for a 70-yard TD. Philadelphia, better known for its running game, went to the air and responded with Thompson throwing to HB Pat McHugh for a 43-yard touchdown that made the score 14-7 at the half.

Of all the big plays in the game, Trippi made perhaps the most spectacular in the third quarter when he fielded a punt and returned it 75 yards for a TD, virtually running through the entire Eagles team and recovering after being tripped up at one point.

Philadelphia put together a 73-yard scoring drive that ended with a two-yard touchdown carry by Van Buren late in the third quarter, closing the margin to 21-14. Along the way, Thompson completed passes to end Jack Ferrante and FB Joe Muha that totaled 39 yards.

In the fourth quarter, Muha, normally a proficient punter who had difficulty with his kicks on this day, unleashed a 69-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Chicago 10. Christman threw to Trippi for 20 yards and then Angsman, breaking through the center of the line, took off on another 70-yard scoring run.

With time running out, Thompson passed the Eagles down the field. They drove 53 yards with “One-Eyed” Tommy completing four throws and Craft running over from inside the one yard line. But that was it for Philadelphia. The Cardinals hung on to win the exciting contest by a score of 28-21.

The Eagles outgained Chicago (357 yards to 336) and led in first downs (22 to 11). The teams went against type as the Cardinals rolled up 282 yards on the ground, to just 60 for Philadelphia, while the Eagles had far more net passing yards (297 to 54). Each team turned the ball over three times. The Cards also were penalized 10 times, at a cost of 97 yards, to 7 flags thrown on the Eagles, for 55 yards. Ultimately, Chicago’s big plays outnumbered those by Philadelphia.

Elmer Angsman ran for 159 yards and two long touchdowns on just 10 carries while Charlie Trippi added 84 on 11 attempts with one TD. Paul Christman was successful on just 3 of 14 passes for 54 yards and was intercepted twice. Angsman, Trippi, and Bill Dewell each caught one, with Dewell’s the longest at 38 yards.

Tommy Thompson (pictured at left) put on an exciting passing display for the Eagles. He set championship game records for attempts (44) and completions (27) while throwing for 297 yards with a touchdown, although he was picked off three times. Jack Ferrante caught 8 of those passes for 73 yards and the remainder was distributed among a total of eight other receivers. Between poor footing and the Cards’ defense, Steve Van Buren was held to 26 yards on 18 carries that included one short TD. Joe Muha led the club with 31 yards on 8 attempts.

“They’re a great team, and more power to them,” said Greasy Neale afterward of the Cardinals. “I hope they win the Western title next year, too, so that we can have the pleasure of knocking them off in Philadelphia.”

Neale’s wish came true as both teams repeated as division champions in 1948. In a Championship game played in blizzard conditions in Philadelphia, the Eagles won. They would go on to achieve one more title in 1949 while the Cardinals would begin to recede back into mediocrity.