Having started with the Galloping Ghost in the 1920’s and moving all the way to the 2010’s we will explore the games that made the NFL what it is today.
This is all very subjective of course, and you may well disagree. If you do, let us know in the comments below, or contact us at Ninety-Nine Yards.
It was tempting to pick the first Chicago-College All Star Game. Played on August 31, 1934 in front of a crowd of 79,432 on August 31, the game was ultimately a scoreless tie. It was demonstrating the growing power of the pro game as a draw.
There was also the 1939 first ever Pro Bowl game. This one saw the Giants beat the All-Stars 13-10. Although it wold be interrupted by World War Two, this one set something lasting in action.
However, for me the most important game of this decade for the NFL, actually came quite early on – the NFL’s first ever playoff game in 1932.
Bears 9 Spartans 0: December 19, 1932
Chicago Stadium (Indoors), Chicago – attendance 11,198
How different it might all have been. The Green Bay Packers won three straight NFL titles (1929-31), and were stood at 10-1-1 and leading the league at the end of November.
They would lose 19-0 to the Portsmouth Spartans on December the 4th, and 9-0 to the Bears on December the 11th to finish the season 10-3-1. Because of those two defeats the league ultimately changed how it found a champion.
Instead the 7-1-6 (6-1-6 NFL) Bears and 6-2-4 (6-1-4 NFL) Spartans were considered tied for the league lead. Tied games did not count. So the one loss Bears and Spartans contested supremacy.
Finding your champion
The NFL had been finding its’ champion based on whoever had the best regular season record based on winning perception since its inception.
There had been controversy right from the start. The undefeated Akron Pros had won the title in 1920. But their 8-0-3 record had been contested by the 10-1-2 Decatur Staleys & 9-1-1 Buffalo All-Americans, who both argued they had more wins and had not been beaten by the Pros.
Four of the first six titles were disputed as the league tried to find its feet. In 1921 there had been a de facto playoff game that was counted controversially retroactively.
What the league had never done however was have two teams playoff in a championship game. With the one defeat Bears and Spartans contesting the title in 1932 that is what they elected to do.
The Milestone Game Itself
As we have seen, for years there were no playoffs or championship games. In most cases, the team with the best record during the regular season was declared the NFL champion. This one game changed all that.
The game was scheduled to be played in Chicago in December at Wrigley Field. However, the weather that week in Chicago was terrible. A week long blizzard made it impossible to play outside. So they came up with a novel idea. Play inside instead!
They moved the game indoors to the Chicago Stadium, where the Chicago Black Hawks hockey team played its games. This was a hockey stadium, so of course the space was too small for a football field.
So some changes were made for the game. For example, the teams kicked off from the 10-yard line, 30 yards from their usual spot, and there were no field goals allowed. For the first time, all plays started with the ball on or between the hash marks, which were ten yards from the sidelines. Every time a team crossed the 10-yard line, the ball was moved back 20 yards to allow for the shortened field. Perhaps worse for the players, dirt left over from a circus provided the turf!
Not a great game
This may go down as a milestone game. A seminal moment that helped change the way the league crowned a champion. But that doesn’t mean it was a classic.
The cramped conditions and elephant dung underfoot (A Bears’ player is said to have thrown up from the stench) did not make for an offensive masterclass. After three quarters of attrition the score was 0-0.
With the restricted field space punts were sailing out of bounds regularly. Indeed only one punt was returned all game long.
The Bears opted to run and run again throughout the game. The Spartans did throw, but not with much success. In the fourth quarter, Portsmouth QB Presnell, (who was picked off five times), was intercepted by Dick Nesbitt, who returned the ball to Portsmouth’s seven-yard line before stepping out of bounds.
The Bears spotted the ball further from the sideline (giving up a down), from which Nagurski ran twice but could not score. Field Goals were not allowed and they were too close to the End Zone to punt.
The Game Breaker
The game was broken open on a touchdown featuring two of the superstars of the day. On fourth-and-two, Red Grange prepared to act as decoy running to the left with the idea that the linebackers would follow him leaving a hole to plunge through. None of them moved and the Spartans placed ten players along the line of scrimmage. Bronko Nagurski took the hand-off, stepped back, jumped, and passed to a wide-open Grange in the end zone for the touchdown on what was probably a busted running play.
The rules of the day stated a passer should be five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Spartans were convinced Nagurski was not. So even the playoff game to settle a disputed standing had controversy attached to it. The touchdown stood and the Bears later added a safety to walk away 9-0 victors and champions of the league following its first true playoff game.
Reaction to the game at the time
Contemporary reaction to the game was mixed to say the least. A Portsmouth Times headline called the game a “Sham Battle on Tom Thumb Gridiron”.
A week after the game, the Bears and Spartans played a charity exhibition game in Cincinnati. Cincinnati Post writer Tom Swope heavily criticized the circus attraction playoff game and declared the exhibition was in fact the true championship match.
NFL president Joe Carr was having none of it. He was quoted as saying, “You fellows decided to play for the championship in the Stadium. You knew in advance the field was small. You should have known that the smallness of the so-called Stadium gridiron would preclude real football and prevent both sides from executing many of the plays at your command. But since you announced that the championship would hinge on the indoor game, the Bears must be declared champions of our league… You made your bed and now you must lie in it, so there can be no more games between the Bears and Spartans this year which will count in the league standing.”
None of the complaining mattered. The game was added to the standings, Portsmouth dropped to third and the Bears were champions. The players received their standard game fees.
However much the press derided it though, the idea of a championship game caught the public attention.
Aftermath of this Milestone Game
This is the second of our reflections on the games that have shaped the NFL. For the second time in a row the game wasn’t all that spectacular, but the circumstances around it were crucial to the development of the league.
Inspired by the popularity of the game, the NFL came up with some rule changes. They also wanted to do something about tied games. Out of the 57 regular-season games in 1932 a total of 10 ended in a tie (17 %). Four of those games had finished 0-0.
The tied game did not die on that day. Instead a league committees decided to increase the possibility of scoring to bring in the fans. Favouring the offense would be something the league would go on to tweak repeatedly over the years to draw in the fans.
All plays would now start with the ball on or between the hash-marks, The goal posts were moved, and the forward pass became legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.
The impact was swift. In 1932 just three teams made it to 100 points. In 1933 that was up to 5 teams with the Giants leading the way with 244 points. Further, with the forward pass legal from anywhere behind the line, teams went from averaging just 55.2 passing yards per game in 1932 to 77.9 in 1933. The game was opening up.
A new league format
The key lesson the league took from the 1932 title game was how much public interest a title match had generated.
For years the owners had debated splitting the NFL into divisions akin to baseball’s American and National Leagues. This gave them the push to do it. East and West Divisions were created.
The Giants, Redskins, Eagles, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Pittsburgh Pirates were assigned to the East. Meanwhile the Bears, Spartans, Packers, Cardinals, and Cincinnati Reds were placed in the West.
A Championship Game at the end of the season would pit the Division winners against each other for the league title. There had been disputes following the 1921, 1924, 1925 and 1931 seasons. Now a title match should end all that.
In my view, that does the longer term history of the NFL a disservice. It is this milestone game, back in 1932 that can be seen as the progenitor of the current NFL title game. Super Bowl LIV is in fact the 88th consecutive NFL championship game to be played.
Banner Image: Spartans publicity shot from 1931. Taken at the Polo Grounds (NY). Image from the Gridiron Uniform Database.