September 13, 2011

1964: Revamped Eagles Stun Giants in Season-Opening Game

The season-opening game between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles on September 13, 1964 brought together two long-time rivals that were going through periods of transition. The Eagles had a new owner in Jerry Wolman, new head coach/GM in Joe Kuharich, and 20 new players on the roster from the club that finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the second straight year in ’63. They had lost six consecutive games to the Giants since last beating them during their 1960 championship season, and had looked especially bad in 1963 in being swept by scores of 37-14 and 42-14.

The Giants, under the direction of Head Coach Allie Sherman, topped the Eastern Conference the previous three seasons, although they came up short in the NFL Championship games after each (twice to the Packers and, in ’63, to the Bears). The team’s core that included QB Y.A. Tittle, split end Del Shofner, flanker Frank Gifford, FB Alex Webster, OT Roosevelt Brown, DE Andy Robustelli, and SS Jim Patton was aging and there was a sense that the window of opportunity for winning a title was about to close. Halfbacks Phil King, the team’s leading rusher in 1963, and Hugh McElhenny, a serviceable veteran even if past his prime, were cut during the preseason, and two controversial offseason trades had removed key players from the defense. DT Dick Modzelewski was traded to Cleveland and, in the most second-guessed deal of all, MLB Sam Huff was sent to the Washington Redskins for two lesser talents, HB Dick James and DT Andy Stynchula.

There was a crowd of 60,871 at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, the largest of the NFL’s opening weekend games. It didn’t take the Eagles long to excite the home fans when on the first play from scrimmage, FB Earl Gros (pictured above), one of the newcomers, ran 59 yards for a touchdown, helped by flanker Ron Goodwin’s block that took out two defenders. Veteran kicker Sam Baker, acquired from the Cowboys as part of the deal that sent popular star flanker Tommy McDonald to Dallas, added the extra point and the score remained 7-0 at the end of the opening period.

In the second quarter, the Eagles put together an 80-yard, 10-play drive that included a 44-yard pass play from QB Norm Snead to TE Pete Retzlaff and ended with a six-yard Snead scoring toss to HB Timmy Brown. While “Pistol Pete” and Brown were capable holdovers, Snead had come to the Eagles from Washington for QB Sonny Jurgensen in the most notorious of Joe Kuharich’s trades.

The Eagles later attempted a free kick following a fair catch on a Giants punt, but Baker missed from 47 yards and Philadelphia took a 14-0 lead into halftime.

Philadelphia’s attacking defense kept Tittle and the aerial game off balance. FS Don Burroughs (pictured at left) was especially effective on safety blitzes, and MLB Dave Lloyd and rookie OLB Mike Morgan were notable performers as well.

The Giants came alive after receiving the second half kickoff, moving 76 yards in five plays capped by Tittle throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to TE Aaron Thomas. The Eagles came right back following New York’s TD, however, and scored again on a 30-yard field goal by Baker. CB Irv Cross then intercepted a Tittle pass in New York territory and returned it 15 yards to the 10 yard line. Timmy Brown followed up with a three-yard touchdown run and Philadelphia held a 24-7 lead after three quarters.

In the fourth quarter, Snead threw to Retzlaff for a 29-yard TD. Following an interception by Lloyd that was returned 26 yards, backup FB Tom Woodeshick closed out the scoring with a nine-yard run. Rookie QB Gary Wood replaced the battered Tittle in the fourth quarter as the Eagles came away with a convincing 38-7 win.

The statistics were closer than the score as the Eagles outgained the Giants by 253 yards to 204 and both teams generated 14 first downs. However, the domination by Philadelphia’s defense was the key to the big win. They sacked the 38-year-old Tittle six times, with Don Burroughs unofficially getting credit for five of those on his blitzes from the free safety position. In addition, Tittle fumbled three times and threw two interceptions that were turned into points for the Eagles. The Eagles turned the ball over just once.

Norm Snead completed 12 of 21 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Pete Retzlaff was the top receiver with 6 catches for 139 yards and a TD. Earl Gros, thanks to the long opening run, gained 67 yards on only six carries. Timmy Brown did most of the ball carrying and ground out just 34 yards on 17 attempts, although he accounted for two scores (one on a pass reception).

For the Giants, Y.A. Tittle was successful on 13 of 25 passes for 122 yards with a TD and two picked off; Gary Wood added five completions in nine attempts for 57 yards. HB Joe Morrison led the rushing attack with 33 yards on 10 carries and also caught the most passes (5) for another 41 yards. Aaron Thomas gained 51 yards on four receptions that included the team’s lone TD.

“Man, every time I looked up all I could see was green, and it wasn't all grass,” said Tittle afterward. “To be perfectly honest, I didn't expect such a tough defense, with 20 new players on the team and a new coach. They hammered with a safety blitz and they red-dogged.”

While the Eagles were an improved team, the big opening day defeat of the Giants did not mark a return to being contenders. They went 6-8 to finish in a tie with Washington for third place in the Eastern Conference. It was enough to convince owner Wolman to tear up Kuharich’s original four-year contract and replace it with one for 15 years. He only lasted another four, accumulating a record of 28-41-1, making many questionable transactions while alienating several of his best players, and becoming a target of fan frustration. (Kuharich and Wolman pictured below, left to right)

For New York, the loss indicated that the bottom had fallen out from under the once-proud franchise. The Giants dropped all the way to last place with a 2-10-2 record. It marked an inglorious end to the careers of Tittle, Gifford, Webster, and Robustelli. It also marked the commencement of a long period of mediocrity as the Giants didn’t return to the postseason until 1981 and had just two winning records in the interim.