December 17, 2011

1933: Bears Edge Giants in First NFL Championship Game

For the first thirteen years of its existence, the National Football League (American Professional Football Association originally) had no designated game to determine the annual champion. While season record was the determining factor, this occasionally led to controversy, especially when the teams didn’t play fixed schedules. In 1932, the clubs tied with the top winning percentage, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans, arranged a game to determine the league champion – while this is sometimes referred to as the first NFL title game, it was not in fact a postseason contest, since the result figured in the season won-lost records (the Bears won).

Several innovations were put into effect for the 1933 season, including rules changes to promote scoring such as using hashmarks, allowing forward passes to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (as opposed to five yards behind), and moving the goal posts up to the goal line (where they would remain until moved back in 1974). There were also structural innovations that included breaking the league up into Eastern and Western divisions and creating a designated postseason championship game to be held between the division winners.

On December 17, 1933 the first official NFL Championship game occurred between the New York Giants, champions of the Eastern Division, and their hosts, the Western Division-champion Chicago Bears.

The Bears, defending league champs, were once again coached by team owner George Halas, who had stepped away from the sideline after the 1929 season for three years in favor of Ralph Jones. They won their first six games, briefly slumped during a midseason road trip to the East with two losses and a tie, and then finished up with four more victories to easily top the Western Division with a 10-2-1 record. Chicago was strong in all facets of the game, with FB Bronko Nagurski (pictured at right) providing the power running, QB Keith Molesworth leading the league by averaging 8.7 yards per pass, and end Bill Hewitt playing well both offensively and defensively.

New York was coached by Steve Owen and had dominated the Eastern Division with an 11-3 tally. Rookie tailback Harry Newman proved to be a top passer and FB Ken Strong, obtained after the Staten Island Stapletons folded, was a good runner and placekicker. Ends Red Badgro and Ray Flaherty and wingback Dale Burnett made for a capable receiving corps. The line was anchored by center Mel Hein and the Giants had proven their defensive prowess already in a shutout win over the Bears during the season.

There were some 26,000 fans in attendance at Wrigley Field on a foggy day with some light rain during the first half. The Giants drove to the Chicago 15 yard line and came up empty. With Nagurski running effectively, the Bears responded by driving into New York territory and scored the first points of the game on a 16-yard field goal by their outstanding placekicker, Jack Manders. Early in the second quarter, Manders booted a second field goal, from 40 yards, and the hosts were ahead by 6-0.

Late in the first half, FB Kink Richards broke off a 30-yard gain for the Giants and Newman threw to Badgro for a 29-yard touchdown. Strong was successful on the extra point attempt, and New York took a narrow 7-6 lead into halftime.

Manders put the Bears back in front in the third quarter with a 28-yard field goal, but the Giants came right back behind Newman’s passing on a 73-yard drive that ended with blocking back Max Krause plowing over from a yard out for a touchdown.

With the score 14-9, it was the turn of Chicago to make a big play. Facing a third-and-long situation, the Bears were set to punt but passed instead of kicking. HB George Corbett threw to QB Carl Brumbaugh for a 67-yard gain to the New York eight yard line (Brumbaugh shown running at top during the title game). From there, Nagurski took the handoff and headed for the line but held up and tossed a jump pass into the end zone. End Bill Karr hauled it in and Chicago regained the lead at 16-14.

Moving into the fourth quarter, once more Newman moved the Giants as he completed all four of his passes. At the Chicago eight, Strong took a handoff on a reverse and, seeing no running room, he lateraled back to Newman. Running to his right and hemmed in for a possible loss of yardage, the tailback saw that Strong had kept on going uncovered into the end zone and completed a TD pass to him. In the back-and-forth rhythm that the contest had settled into, New York was once more on top by a 21-16 tally.

It seemed as though that would be enough, but with time running down a shanked punt by the Giants that traveled only eight yards gave Chicago the ball in good field position at the New York 47. Molesworth passed to Brumbaugh for nine yards and then Nagurski ran for four. The Bears once again resorted to Nagurski on a jump pass (one of their most effective plays). This time the throw was to Hewitt for 14 yards, but when Dale Burnett closed in to make the tackle, he tossed the ball to Karr who ran the rest of the way for a 33-yard touchdown.

The outcome was still in doubt right down to the final play as Newman threw to Burnett in the open field, but DHB Red Grange, once a great running halfback but now better as a defensive back, was able to hold him up (and prevent a possible lateral) and the Bears won the NFL Championship by a score of 23-21.

The first postseason title game had been exciting, containing six lead changes, and highlighted the greater emphasis on passing in the pro game as opposed to college football at the time. As the report by the Associated Press put it, “The struggle was a revelation to college coaches who advocate no changes in the rules. It was strictly an offensive battle and the professional rule of allowing passes to be thrown from any point behind the line of scrimmage was responsible for most of the thrills.”

Total yards were almost even, with the Bears holding a slight edge of 311 to 307. Chicago gained most of its yardage on the ground (161 to 99) while the Giants went more often to the air (208 to 150). New York had the edge in first downs, 13 to 12. Notable individual performances were turned in by Bronko Nagurski, who ran for 65 yards on 14 carries, and Harry Newman (pictured below), who completed 12 of 17 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.

The Bears and Giants were still the best clubs in their respective divisions in 1934 and met again for the NFL title, this time at the Polo Grounds in New York and with a decidedly different result.