December 26, 2013

1943: Luckman Leads Bears to NFL Championship Against Redskins

The Chicago Bears had topped the National Football League's Western Division for a fourth straight season as they hosted the Washington Redskins, defending league champions, to determine the NFL Championship on December 26, 1943. With George Halas, the owner and head coach, on active duty in the Navy due to World War II, the team was co-coached by assistants Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnsos. The wartime manpower depletion brought all-time great FB Bronko Nagurski out of retirement at age 34 after six years way from the game (he turned 35 during the season). But there was still plenty of talent available, starting with QB Sid Luckman (pictured above), who had a record-setting year in which he passed for 2194 yards and 28 touchdowns. Chicago compiled an 8-1-1 tally to once more play for the league title.

The Bears had been champions in 1940 and ’41, but were upset by Washington in 1942. The Redskins were coached by Dutch Bergman and had a 6-0-1 record after beating the Bears a month earlier. However, they lost their remaining three games to finish at 6-3-1 and tied with the Giants, who had beaten them in the last two regular season contests, for first in the Eastern Division. They defeated New York soundly by a 28-0 score in the tie-breaking playoff for the opportunity to defend their title against the powerful Bears. Washington had a great passer of its own in tailback Sammy Baugh, who placed second to Luckman in passing yards (1754) and TD passes (23) while also leading the league with 11 interceptions as a safety on defense.

There were 34,320 fans in attendance at Wrigley Field for the NFL title clash. In the first quarter, the Bears drove to the Washington 29 but got no further after four straight passes were incomplete. The Redskins in turn advanced to the Chicago 24 but also came away empty due to an interception. However, he Redskins ran into a major problem early when Baugh was kicked in the head and sat out the remainder of the first half.

Still, Washington put together a seven-play scoring drive following a 10-yard punt return by tailback George Cafego to the Redskins’ 40. Wingback Wilbur Moore made a sensational leaping grab of a pass from Cafego for a 35-yard gain and another throw intended for end Joe Aguirre drew an interference penalty that put the ball on the Chicago one. FB Andy Farkas hit the line and came up short on the last play of the opening period, but started off the second quarter by making it through the line standing up for a touchdown. Bob Masterson kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead.

The Bears came right back in four plays from their 33 yard line. Sid Luckman threw to HB Ray “Scooter” McLean for 29 yards and a screen pass to HB Harry Clarke was good for a 31-yard TD. Bob Snyder added the extra point to even the score.

Following a short possession by the Redskins that resulted in a punt, Chicago advanced 69 yards for another score. With a mix of runs and passes, the Bears gained four first downs along the way before Bronko Nagurski plowed over tackle for a touchdown. Snyder again kicked the extra point and the score was 14-7 at the half.

In a bizarre development, Washington owner George Preston Marshall, angry at the rough play on Chicago’s part, wandered over to the Bears’ bench before the half and was confronted by members of the Chicago staff, who accused him of attempting to spy on the Bears, before being escorted away.

In the third quarter, Luckman made a big play on defense by intercepting a Cafego pass and returning it 25 yards to the Washington 36. Luckman immediately threw to HB Dante Magnani (pictured below) for a 36-yard TD. Shortly thereafter, Luckman intercepted another pass to give the Bears the ball at their own 37. Once again, the Bears capitalized immediately on the turnover with Luckman tossing a screen pass to Magnani who again went the distance for a 66-yard touchdown. Snyder missed the extra point this time, but the Bears had a twenty-point lead thanks to the quick scores following the turnovers.

Still in the third quarter, but behind by 27-7, Baugh returned but appeared to be dazed and was not in top form. Nevertheless, he passed the Redskins into position for a score and Farkas had a catch for a 17-yard TD. With Masterson’s extra point, Chicago’s margin was narrowed to 27-14.

It didn’t remain narrowed for long, and any glimmers of hope for the visitors were extinguished when the Bears took the ensuing short kickoff that gave them good field position at their own 44 and drove to another score in eight plays. Nagurski twice ran for first downs and Luckman completed the series with a lob into the end zone to end Jim Benton for a 29-yard TD.

Another Chicago series culminated in Clarke making an outstanding catch and falling into the end zone for another touchdown on a play that covered 10 yards after Luckman, rolling out far to his right, threw across the field to him. The game was a route now, with the Bears comfortably leading by 41-14.

In the closing minutes, Baugh threw to Aguirre for a 20-yard TD, but it hardly mattered. The Bears were NFL Champions for the third time in four seasons by a convincing score of 41-21.

Chicago dominated in total yards (455 to 249) and compiled more first downs (14 to 11). The Bears accumulated 169 yards on the ground, to just 50 in 27 tries for Washington, and gained 286 net yards through the air against 199 for the Redskins. Most critically, Washington turned the ball over six times to devastating effect, while the Bears suffered no turnovers.

Sid Luckman had a brilliant all-around performance, completing 15 of 26 passes for 286 yards and five touchdowns with none intercepted, running for 64 yards on 8 carries, and intercepting two passes on defense that led to critical scores. Dante Magnani had four catches for 122 yards and two TDs and Bronko Nagurski (pictured below), in his last game, rushed for 34 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

For the Redskins, Sammy Baugh was successful on 8 of 12 throws in limited play for 123 yards and two TDs while tossing one interception. George Cafego completed just three of his 12 passes for 76 yards and no TDs while giving up three interceptions. Wilbur Moore had 5 catches for 108 yards and Andy Farkas paced the ground attack with 36 yards on 11 attempts that included a TD.

The Bears, who had compiled a 37-5-1 regular season record over four years, finally slipped to second place in 1944. They would next return to the Championship game in 1946. Washington dropped to third while transitioning from the single-wing to T-formation, but came back to top the division in 1945.