December 29, 2009

1963: Bears Exploit Turnovers to Defeat Giants for NFL Championship

It was a frigid day at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on December 29, 1963 as the Bears hosted the New York Giants in the NFL Championship game. The temperature at game time was 11 degrees. There were 45,801 fans in attendance to see which team would prevail – the home town club with its outstanding defense, or the visitors and their vaunted passing offense.

The Bears were coached by the 68-year-old “Papa Bear”, George Halas. With a zone defense installed by assistant coach George Allen, Chicago had put together an 11-1-2 record to edge out the Green Bay Packers in the Western Conference. The defensive line was anchored by DE Doug Atkins; the linebacking corps of Joe Fortunato, Bill George, and Larry Morris was the best in pro football; and the defensive backfield, led by free safety Roosevelt Taylor, who co-led the NFL with 9 interceptions, was excellent as well. The offense, led by QB Bill Wade, played conservatively but effectively.

The Giants, 11-3 under Head Coach Allie Sherman, featured an aerial attack directed by 37-year-old veteran QB Y.A. Tittle, who had been traded to New York from the 49ers prior to the 1961 season and proceeded to set passing records while leading the Giants to three consecutive Eastern Conference titles. In 1963, Tittle had broken his own record for TD passes, set just the previous year, with 36 (George Blanda had thrown the same number in the AFL in 1961) and led the league with a 60.2 completion percentage and 8.6 yards per attempt. He had a fine receiving corps led by split end Del Shofner and flanker Frank Gifford. The defense was aging but effective.

The Bears had the first possession of the game and ran the ball well until Wade, a good running quarterback, fumbled after a 12-yard carry at his own 41 yard line. CB Erich Barnes recovered for the Giants, and a few plays later Tittle threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Gifford. However, LB Morris rolled into Tittle’s left leg as it was planted to throw, tearing ligaments in his knee. The Giants led, 7-0, but the score would prove to be a costly one (pictured below, Tittle getting set to throw the scoring pass with #33 Morris about to roll into him; #31 is Joe Fortunato).

The teams exchanged punts, and then once again the Bears turned the ball over on a fumble, this time by HB Willie Galimore. With the ball on the Chicago 31, Tittle went for the touchdown on first down, firing to Shofner who had CB Dave Whitsell beaten by five yards in the end zone. The normally reliable All-Pro receiver jumped an instant too late and wasn’t able to make the catch. On second down, Morris intercepted a screen pass intended for HB Phil King and returned it 61 yards to the New York five yard line. Two plays later, Wade scored on a quarterback sneak, and instead of the Giants being up by two touchdowns in the first quarter, the score was tied at 7-7.

The Giants drove downfield once more, with the key play being a 36-yard pass from Tittle to TE Aaron Thomas. But with first and goal on the Bears three yard line, Chicago held and New York had to settle for a 13-yard Don Chandler field goal.

As the game continued through the second quarter, Chicago’s offense couldn’t move the ball against New York’s tenacious defense, but the Giants were unable to score again. Larry Morris once again hit Tittle and aggravated his knee injury to the point that he had to be helped off the field and didn’t immediately return. Chandler missed a field goal attempt, and the score remained 10-7 in favor of New York at the half.

The Bears defense turned another big play in the third quarter - they were on the lookout for screen passes, and DE Ed O’Bradovich cut in front of FB Joe Morrison to pick one off in Giants territory (pictured at right). Aided by a key third down pass completion to TE Mike Ditka, the Bears scored their second touchdown as Wade once again snuck over from a yard out.

After a missed field goal attempt by the Bears in the fourth quarter, Tittle and the Giants mounted one more major drive, moving from their 20 yard line deep into Chicago territory. But CB Bennie McRae intercepted a Tittle pass on third-and-five to end the threat. Still, the Bears were unable to mount a sustained drive to run out the clock and the Giants got the ball back once more at their 16 yard line with less than two minutes remaining.

Tittle connected for three passes that covered 30 yards, and in a third down situation hit Gifford for 15 yards to the Chicago 39. With 15 seconds left, Tittle threw a bomb intended for Shofner, but it was intercepted by strong safety Richie Petitbon and the Bears were league champions with a 14-10 win.

The day truly belonged to the Bears defense, as exemplified by the selection of Larry Morris as the MVP (pictured at top, stopping Joe Morrison) and the awarding of the game ball to George Allen. Of course, as Giants DE Andy Robustelli said afterward, “If Tittle hadn’t been hurt, we’d have won”. The Bears were outgained, 268 yards to 222, and their two touchdown possessions totaled 19 yards thanks to the excellent field position they were given through the interceptions by Morris and O’Bradovich. Bill Wade (pictured passing below left) completed just 10 of 28 passes for 138 yards, although to his credit he threw no interceptions. HB Ron Bull was the leading rusher for the Bears, with 42 yards on 13 carries; Wade was second, with 34 yards on 8 attempts and the two TDs. Ditka and FB Joe Marconi each caught three passes, with Marconi’s 64 yards leading the team (Ditka had 38 yards).

For the Giants, Y.A. Tittle, hampered by the injured knee, completed 11 of 29 passes for 147 yards with one TD and five interceptions. Frank Gifford topped the receivers with three receptions for 45 yards and a score. Joe Morrison also caught three passes (for 18 yards) and was the leading rusher with 18 carries for 61 yards. Most tellingly, Del Shofner caught no passes at all.

The loss was especially galling for Tittle, appearing in his last postseason game (he retired following the 1964 season), but never winning one. The Giants were on the verge of a long decline – this was their sixth championship game appearance in eight years (only the first, in 1956, resulted in a win), but they would not appear in the playoffs again until 1981. The Bears fell quickly from their perch as well, going 5-9 in 1964; they wouldn’t make the postseason again until 1977.

For Halas, it was his sixth – and final – NFL championship, stretching all the way back to 1921. On a frigid day at Wrigley Field, 42 years after leading the Bears to a title for the first time (before there even was a postseason), “the Papa Bear” and his team were back on top once more.