Milestone Games: The most significant NFL game of each decade: the 1950’s

Milestone Games: The most significant NFL game of each decade: the 1950’s
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1958 and “The Greatest Game Ever Played”

Selecting the ‘Milestone Games’ gives us an opportunity to look back over the 100 year history of the NFL and select the most meaningful match-up of each decade.

We started with the Galloping Ghost in the 1920’s. Then moved on to the first playoff game in the 1930’s, and the popularization of the T-formation in the 1940’s.

We will be moving all the way to the 2010’s and will explore the games that made the NFL what it is today. Now we have reached the 1950’s. An era that became a springboard for the developing popularity of the league.

With that in mind, the Milestone Game for this decade is ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’ – the 1958 NFL title match.

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.

Some Key games in the 1950’s

In 1950 the NFL merged with the All-America Football Conference and the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts joined the league. The Browns had dominated the AAFC going 52-4-3 and taking each league title before being merged into the NFL.

Their first game in the NFL was against the Philadelphia Eagles, who had won three straight division and one league titles in the past three years. Eagles fans and the NFL as a whole expected Philadelphia to give the Browns a rude awakening in the NFL. Instead Cleveland won 35-10. This game helped establish the Browns as a true 50’s powerhouse and demonstrated that the league had been strengthened, not diluted, as some felt, by expansion.

Another key game came later that same season as the Browns and LA Rams contested the NFL title. The Browns not only announced themselves at the start of the season, but also beat the best the NFL had to offer that year winning the title 30-28.

Cleveland would go on to appear in every NFL title game from 1950-1955 going 3-3 in the process. There was no doubting the AAFC made a contribution to developing the NFL.

Especially as Browns Head Coach, Paul Brown was credited with many of the features that modernized much of the game we reocgnize today.

Baltimore Colts – just to be clear

The Baltimore Colts who squared off in the 1958 title game were not the team that joined the league in 1950 from the AAFC.

That team had lasted a year, going 1-11 in 1950, before folding. These Colts were born from the ashes of the defunct Dallas Texans who had had gone 1-11 in 1952.

These Colts were founded in 1953, and have been in the NFL ever since, although these days they are the Indianapolis Colts.

Their opponent in the title game the New York Giants had been in the league since 1925.


Colts 23 Giants 17 (OT) December 28th 1958

Yankee Stadium, New York – attendance 64,185

Johnny U launches the Colts downfield in the 1958 NFL title game. Image from pohistorydig.com

The NFL had introduced overtime to Divisional contests in 1940. It was not put into the title game however until 1946. This game, between the Colts and the Giants was the first NFL title contest ever to go into overtime.

As noted above the Colts were a relatively young franchise. They had gone 6-18 in their first two seasons. Under the tutelage of Weeb Ewbank however they were improving year on year from 1954-7 before going 9-3 and winning the West Division this season.

The Giants by contrast were an established franchise who had last won the title just two seasons earlier.

The Giants had needed to tie Cleveland to force a playoff. In the final week of the 1958 season Pat Summerall kicked a 49 yard game winner in snow & wind to force a playoff. The East Divisional playoff saw New York defeat the Browns 10-0. In the process they held Jim Brown to 8 yards on 7 carries!

The Milestone Game Itself

It is funny how the reputation of a game can change if it has an exciting conclusion. If this hadn’t finished close, or been the first overtime title game it may well not be so fondly remembered. Not least because it was a game that featured some sloppy play and at times conservative play calling.

The game started with three turnovers, and a missed Field Goal before the Giants kicked a 36 yard Field Goal to lead 3-0 after the first quarter.

In the second period the Colts looked to be taking over as 2 Frank Gifford fumbles were converted into points. The first a 2 yard plunge by Alan Ameche, and the second a 15 yard touchdown pass from Unitas to Raymond Berry. The latter converting a 15 play 86 yard drive.

Berry had 12 receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown in the game. The 12 receptions set a record for an NFL title game that stood for 55 years.

Up 14-3 the Colts looked to be in control at halftime. Early in the third the Colts were at the Giants 1 with a chance to bury the game. Instead the Giants made a goal-line stand, took over on downs and the momentum shifted.

New York went 75 yards in 4 plays to pull it back to 14-10. Then in the fourth quarter Giants’ QB Charlie Conerly threw a 15 yard TD to Gifford for a 17-14 lead.

All about the ending to the game

As noted above, it is often the ending for which a game is remembered. Take Super Bowl XXXIV for example; people talk about the Titans being one yard short of tying they game. They don’t talk about the 9-0 halftime Rams lead after a steady first half of play.

This game from 1958 is no different. It is best remembered for the last 2:20 of regulation and overtime.

Down 17-14, with 2:20 on the clock and back at their own 14 yard line the Colts received the ball one more time. After two incomplete passes, Unitas connected with halfback Lenny Moore for 11 yards. Another incomplete pass was followed by Unitas hitting Berry for gains of 25, 15 & 13 yards. With 10 seconds on the clock the Colts kicked the tying points with a 20 yard field goal.

Unitas and Berry had put on a 2 minute masterclass and it gripped the watching TV audience. In overtime the Giants won the toss and received. They only managed a three and out. By now the Colts were in rhythm and the Giants’ D was labouring badly.

Unitas directed the Colts on a 13 play 80 yard drive that was capped off by Alan Ameche following great blocking into the End Zone from the 1 yard line.

It was the last time the championship game needed overtime until Super Bowl 51, when the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28.

Aftermath of the Milestone Game

People started calling it the “greatest game” almost immediately after the event. Reporter Gene Ward wrote in the Monday morning edition of the New York Daily News following the game: “In years to come when our children’s children are listening to stories about football, they’ll be told about the greatest game ever played – the one between the Giants and Colts for the 1958 NFL Championship”.

In a way, Ward, and other voices echoing his were right. In 1958, the NFL occupied a very different place in the American psyche. There were no Super Bowls, or mega-premium TV ads during sporting events. This game was arguably a catalyst for changing that.

Baseball was still far and away America’s most popular sport. But a change was coming in late 1958. A change arguably precipitated by this one game. That change would see the NFL dominate American sports culture for years to come. Because of this game. This one remarkable, overtime game.

Timing Matters

The 1958 NFL Championship game didn’t just see the Colts claim the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy. No, it did more than that. It was a pivotal moment in league history & that was facilitated by good timing. That timing was because of television. To have a classic title match go into overtime as television was burgeoning could not have worked out better for the NFL.

An estimated 45 million (plus) homes had this game broadcast to them. It was tense, it was exciting, and it captured the imagination. People demanded more, and the NFL was on its way to true dominance through that medium and the attention and revenue it brought.

Johnny Unitas became a household name almost overnight, 30,000 fans were waiting at Baltimore airport for the Colts, and within a decade the NFL was the number one attraction in the American sporting landscape.

Banner image: Unitas leads the Colts to victory. Image from chatsports.com

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