December 17, 2010

1944: Packers Beat Giants for NFL Title on Two Fritsch TDs

By 1944, the manpower shortage in the NFL was acute due to World War II. It was apparent in the rosters of the teams that met for the NFL Championship on December 17 at the Polo Grounds in New York. The host Giants had former Packers star tailback Arnie Herber, who had come out of retirement at age 34, as well as one of their own past stars, 38-year-old fullback Ken Strong, back after a five-year absence to primarily handle the placekicking.

New York, under 14th-year Head Coach Steve Owen, went 8-1-1 to narrowly place first in the Eastern Division over the 7-1-2 Eagles. In addition to Herber’s passing, the Giants had FB Bill Paschal, who led the league in rushing (737 yards), carries (196), and touchdowns (9). They also featured wingback Ward Cuff, who ran for 425 yards and tied Philadelphia’s Steve Van Buren for the best average gain per carry at 5.6. 14-year center Mel Hein and All-Pro G Len Younce anchored the line.

Head Coach Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay Packers were a mix of young and old, but their key player remained end Don Hutson, the NFL leader in pass receptions (58), receiving yards (866), scoring (85 points) and, tied with Paschal, touchdowns (9). Second-year tailback Irv Comp led the league in passing yards (1159) and was second in TD passes (12, tied with Detroit’s Frank Sinkwich). The Packers won their first six games on the way to winning the Western Division with an 8-2 record, although one of the losses had been to the Giants a month before.

The Giants were at a disadvantage coming into the title game because Paschal had injured his ankle in the season’s last game, but they did have star tackle Al Blozis available, who had missed most of the year after going into the military but had been granted a pass to be able to play in the championship contest.

There were 46,016 fans present for what promised to be a tough defensive battle. The first quarter was scoreless, but early in the second period the Packers returned a punt to the New York 48 and followed that with two big runs, of 20 yards by HB Joe Laws and 27 yards by FB Ted Fritsch (pictured at top) that put them in a first-and-goal situation at the one. The Giants held on the next three plays, but finally Fritsch plowed into the end zone and, with Hutson’s successful extra point, Green Bay held a 7-0 advantage.

New York’s defense concentrated on disrupting Green Bay’s passing game and, more specifically, Hutson. Late in the second quarter, the great end finally got open and gathered in a Comp pass for a 24-yard gain to the Giants’ 30. Three plays later, with time running out, Hutson ran a crossing pattern that caused the defense to shift along with him. He was successfully being used as a decoy – Comp threw to Fritsch, who had looped out of the backfield and was all alone at the five yard line, easily able to complete the 28-yard touchdown play. Again Hutson added the extra point, and Green Bay led by a 14-0 margin at the half.

The Giants hadn’t been able to move beyond their 35 yard line during the first half, but late in the third quarter they put together a drive featuring a 41-yard pass from Herber to end Frank Liebel that took them into scoring position. Cuff, playing in the tailback position rather than his usual wingback spot, ran for a one-yard touchdown to start the fourth quarter and, with Strong’s PAT, the Green Bay margin was cut to seven points.

The Giants were unable to score again, however, as the Packers played conservatively on offense and, thanks to interceptions and good punts, kept New York from getting close. Late in the game the Giants threatened one last time, but a Herber pass was intercepted by back Paul Duhart at the Green Bay 20 to clinch the 14-7 win for the Packers.

Green Bay outgained the Giants, 237 yards to 199, and in particular outrushed them with 163 yards to 85 for New York. Joe Laws was the leading ground gainer with 74 yards on 13 carries while Ted Fritsch ran for 58 yards on 17 attempts, including a TD and also had the other Packer touchdown on his lone pass reception. Irv Comp (pictured at left) completed just three of 10 passes for 73 yards with the TD and three interceptions. Don Hutson caught two of those passes for 47 yards and, while he didn’t score any touchdowns, played a key role as a decoy.

For New York, Arnie Herber, with inadequate run support and a defense geared to shut down the aerial game, was able to complete just 8 of 22 passes for 117 yards. He had no TDs and was intercepted four times (Laws accounted for three of the pickoffs). Ward Cuff ran for 55 yards on 12 attempts, including a touchdown, and caught two passes for another 25 yards. Bill Paschal, forced to sit out most of the contest, ran the ball only twice, for three yards. Frank Liebel caught three passes for 71 yards.

The championship was the last for the Packers under their founder, Lambeau – after winning six titles (three prior to the advent of division play and the championship game in 1933), Green Bay would not win another until 1961.

The game was also the last for the 6’6”, 250-pound Al Blozis (pictured below). A consensus All-Pro in 1943, he rejoined his infantry unit after the title game. Six weeks later, he was killed in action during the Battle of the Bulge. His number 32 was retired by the Giants.