December 9, 2014

1956: Caroline Stars as Bears Edge Cards

The game between the NFL’s two Chicago franchises, the Bears and Cardinals, on December 9, 1956 had significant meaning for both teams. While the rivalry was always significant, in this instance both clubs were battling to remain in contention in their respective conferences.

The Bears, coached by Paddy Driscoll, the replacement for the (briefly) retired George Halas, had a 7-2-1 record and were trying to keep pace in the Western Conference with the Lions, who had beaten them badly at Detroit the previous week. FB Rick Casares was leading the NFL in rushing and QB Ed Brown was a productive passer who had an outstanding target available in end Harlon Hill. Injuries were a problem at halfback, however, and J.C. Caroline (pictured above), a NFL rookie who had spent a year in the CFL and was performing well in the defensive backfield, was to get a shot on offense.

The Cardinals were under the guidance of second-year Head Coach Ray Richards and had a 6-4 tally that put them behind the Giants in the Eastern Conference. While the Bears regularly contended, the Cards had not finished with a winning record since 1949. They featured the league’s second-best rusher, all-purpose HB Ollie Matson. They also had a good defensive backfield that included DHBs Dick “Night Train” Lane and Lindon Crow. QB Lamar McHan had potential and was a good fit in the team’s split-T offense, but could be temperamental and lost his starting job at one point during the season.

There were 48,606 fans in attendance on a cold day at Wrigley Field, and they saw a game that proved to be a tense and hard-fought affair. In the first quarter, Ollie Matson (pictured at left) took a pitchout and raced 65 yards for an apparent touchdown, but it was called back due to a penalty on the offense.

The game remained scoreless until the second quarter, when a shanked punt by John Roach of the Cardinals that traveled only 17 yards gave the Bears the ball at the Cards’ 27. The result was a 36-yard field goal by George Blanda to break the deadlock.

With time running out in the first half, an Ed Brown pass was intercepted by Lindon Crow and the Cards tied the score at 3-3 on the last play before halftime as Pat Summerall booted a field goal from 42 yards that barely cleared the crossbar.

In the third quarter, the Bears put together a 60-yard drive highlighted by the running of Casares and J. C. Caroline and a pass by Ed Brown to Harlon Hill that picked up 21 yards to the Cards’ 16. The series was capped by Caroline running for the last three yards and a touchdown. Blanda added the extra point for the seven-point lead.

On the next series by the Cards, Matson ran 83 yards down the sideline for another apparent TD, but again the play was nullified, this time by a holding penalty. The game had no more scoring the rest of the way. There were opportunities, but it was a rough day for the placekickers. George Blanda missed three of his four field goal attempts, all of which were blocked, and Pat Summerall was successful on only one of five tries, with two of them blocked.

With time running out in the fourth quarter, the contest came down to a wild finish. Following the interception of a Bears’ pass at the goal line, a free-for-all broke out that involved a half dozen players and a number of fans, bringing police and ushers onto the field to help restore order. Linebackers Bill George of the Bears and Carl Brettschneider of the Cardinals were ejected once the situation was calmed. On the next play, “Night Train” Lane, put in as a receiver, caught a pass from Lamar McHan that traveled 40 yards in the air. The play covered 75 yards and it appeared that Lane was sure to score a potentially game-tying touchdown, but he was caught by Caroline at the Chicago seven, the rookie’s flying tackle causing a fumble that safety McNeil Moore recovered for the Bears. The fumble was of no consequence as the final gun sounded shortly thereafter and the Bears came away with a tough 10-3 win.

The Bears had the edge in total yards (302 to 265), with258 yards of their total coming on the ground while they completed only three passes out of 15 attempts. They also led in first downs (16 to 11). The Cards turned the ball over five times, to four suffered by the Bears, but the Cards were undone by penalties, two of which negated the long potential scoring runs by Ollie Matson.

J.C. Caroline rushed for 68 yards on 16 carries that included the game’s only touchdown while making the biggest defensive play at the end. Rick Casares (pictured at right) gained 117 yards on 25 carries and Ollie Matson ended up rushing for just 26 yards on 9 attempts.

The win for the Bears kept them a half-game behind Detroit in the Western Conference standings, setting up a showdown with the Lions in the season finale that they won. Ending up with a 9-2-1 record, Chicago was thrashed by the Giants in the NFL Championship game.  The loss officially eliminated the Cardinals from contention in the Eastern Conference. They won their finale to finish in second place at 7-5.

“He was simply great out there,” said Coach Driscoll of the Bears about J.C. Caroline. “We hadn’t intended on using him much on offense, but what could we do after he took over?”

Caroline received Rookie of the Year honors from The Sporting News and was named to the Pro Bowl after intercepting six passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns. In his stint on offense, he rushed for 141 yards on 34 carries (4.1 avg.) and scored twice more.

Rick Casares finished as the NFL rushing leader with 1126 yards on 234 carries (4.8 avg.) and 12 touchdowns. He scored another two TDs among his 23 pass receptions and led the league in that category as well with 14. Ollie Matson remained the runner-up in rushing as he gained a career-high 924 yards on 192 attempts (4.8 avg.) and scored five times. Adding in pass receptions and kick returns, he topped the NFL in all-purpose yards with 1524.

The long pass reception for “Night Train” Lane was his only one of the season and one of eight, for 253 yards and a TD, over the course of his career. He was a consensus first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl selection for his prowess in the defensive backfield as he intercepted seven passes, returning them for 206 yards and a TD.