December 30, 2010

1956: Giants Dominate Bears on Frozen Field for NFL Title

Temperatures in New York City were in the 20s and the field at Yankee Stadium was frozen for the NFL Championship game on December 30, 1956. The head coach of the host Giants, Jim Lee Howell, made the decision to have the players wear sneakers – reminiscent of the 1934 title game (although the sneakers were available prior to, rather than obtained during, the game). While in this instance the Bears did likewise, the result would be similar to the earlier contest.

The Giants had won the Eastern Conference with an 8-3-1 record. The offense, directed by assistant coach Vince Lombardi and led by 35-year-old QB Charlie Conerly, was conservative but effective and contained the consensus league MVP in HB Frank Gifford, who ran for 819 yards and added another 603 yards on 51 pass receptions. Defense was the team’s strength, however, coached by assistant Tom Landry and containing All-Pros in DT Roosevelt Grier, DE Andy Robustelli, and safety Emlen Tunnell. Rookie MLB Sam Huff had an impact, as did veteran newcomers HB Ed Hughes and DT Dick Modzelewski.

As had been the case in 1934, New York’s opponent was the Chicago Bears, leaders in the Western Conference at 9-2-1. George Halas still directed the club as owner, although he had retired as head coach (he came out of retirement in 1958) in favor of longtime assistant Paddy Driscoll. Chicago had the NFL’s leading rusher in FB Rick Casares (1126 yards) and the leading passer, QB Ed Brown (9.9 yards per attempt), who split time with George Blanda. All-Pro end Harlon Hill caught 47 passes for 1128 yards and 11 touchdowns. The defense, anchored by All-Pro middle guard Bill George, was rugged. The two teams had played to a 17-17 tie during the regular season and the Bears were favored coming into the title game.

The Giants were concluding their first season as tenants at Yankee Stadium, and there were 56,836 fans present. New York got off to a quick start as HB Gene Filipski returned the opening kickoff 53 yards to the Chicago 39 yard line. Four plays later, FB Mel Triplett ran 17 yards up the middle for a touchdown (pictured above). It didn’t get any better for the Bears when, on their first possession following the ensuing kickoff, Casares fumbled on the second play and Robustelli recovered for New York at the Chicago 15. Ben Agajanian ended up kicking a 17-yard field goal. Before the first quarter was over, Agajanian kicked for another three points, from 43 yards, after safety Jim Patton intercepted a Brown pass.

It was 13-0 after the first quarter as Conerly (pictured at right) entered the contest for the Giants. In an unorthodox arrangement, backup QB Don Heinrich typically started and ran the offense for the first couple of series while Conerly studied the defense’s tendencies from the sideline. With the veteran quarterback now directing the attack, New York’s lead was extended to 20-0 three minutes into the second quarter as HB Alex Webster ran three yards for a touchdown.

The Bears finally got a break when a punt was fumbled by Tunnell at the New York 25 and DT John Mellekas recovered for Chicago. A five-play drive was capped by Casares running nine yards for a TD. However, any hopes the Bears might have had of getting back into the game were dashed when the Giants responded by driving 72 yards in five plays, including a pass from Conerly to Webster that covered 50 yards and a 20-yard run by Triplett down to the Chicago two yard line. Webster finished off the possession with another short scoring run, this time from a yard out. Less than two minutes later, Giants guard Ray Beck blocked a punt by Brown that was recovered in the end zone for a TD by DB Henry Moore. The score was 34-7 at the half.

The second half added little of note. The New York defense continued to shut down the Bears, with either Brown or Blanda behind center, and Chicago even switched from the T-formation to the double-wing in an unsuccessful effort to generate offense. The Giants put together a third quarter scoring drive of 80 yards in four plays that ended with a Conerly pass to end Kyle Rote for a nine-yard touchdown (the extra point attempt failed).

New York scored once more, in the fourth quarter, as Conerly passed to Gifford for 14 yards. Backup Bobby Clatterbuck replaced the veteran quarterback at that point and the game ended with the Giants winning by a very convincing 47-7 margin.

The Giants outgained Chicago, 348 yards to 270, and held the Bears to just 67 yards on the ground. Charlie Conerly didn’t need to go to the air often, but was efficient when he did so, completing 7 of 10 passes for 195 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Mel Triplett was the leading rusher, gaining 71 yards on 13 carries with a TD, while Frank Gifford (pictured at left) had 30 yards on five attempts and also caught four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Alex Webster (pictured below right), who had the two short scoring runs among his 12 carries for 27 yards, added another 5 pass receptions for 76 yards.

The Bears went to the air 47 times, with Ed Brown completing just 8 of 20 passes for 97 yards with an interception and George Blanda succeeding on 12 of 27 throws for 140 yards, also having one picked off. Rick Casares gained only 43 yards on 14 carries with Chicago’s lone score, but also had the costly early fumble. Harlon Hill caught 6 passes for 87 yards, but most came after the outcome had been decided. End Jim Dooley added another 6 receptions for 66 yards.

“The frozen field was no excuse,” said Paddy Driscoll afterward. “They just ran on it and we didn’t…we just didn’t have it…the Giants played a great game.”

It was the first NFL Championship for the Giants in 18 years. While the team would make it back to the title game five times in the next seven seasons, the win in 1956 would be their last until the Super Bowl following the 1986 season.