We have reached the 1940’s when selecting the NFL milestone games. A series that 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.
Having started with the Galloping Ghost in the 1920’s and the first playoff game in the 1930’s we will be moving all the way to the 2010’s. Along the way 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.
Some Key Moments of the 1940’s
There were some key moments in the development of the NFL during the 1940’s. For example, the Bears and the Packers finished in a tie for the Western Division championship in 1941. That set up the first divisional playoff game in league history. (The Bears won 33-14, then defeated the Giants 37-9 for the NFL championship).
Further Divisional playoff games would occur in 1943, 1947 and over the years as necessary. But this game in 1941 had shown it didn’t just have to be about the championship game in the playoffs.
The 1942 NFL championship game saw Washington prevail 14-6 against an 11-0 Bears team who would have been the first perfect team in league history. Perfect seasons are incredibly rare in pro football. Yet 1948 saw The Cleveland Browns win their third straight championship in the AAFC, and go 14-0-0 before crushing the Buffalo Bills 49-7 in the title game.
Maybe that AAFC championship game could have been the milestone game of the decade. Especially as although the NFL does not recognize this perfect season, the Hall of Fame certainly does.
But none of those are our milestone game for the 1940’s. Because the 1940 NFL championship game was a watershed moment in how the game was played at the pro level.
Chicago 73 Washington 0 December 8, 1940
Griffith Stadium, Washington – attendance 36,034.
The most one-sided score in NFL history came in a championship game and changed the way the game was played on offense.
This was the first NFL title game to be broadcast on network radio. The Mutual Broadcasting System had Red Barber call the game to 120 stations, having paid $2,500 for the privilege to do so. Another first, and we know that the NFL would come to grasp the power of the media in popularizing the game over the coming decades.
When the Bears routed the New England Patriots 46-10 in SuperBowl XX, it was an exclamation point on a dominant 18-1 season. You might expect then that a Bears team that won a championship game 73-0 was doing the same.
However the Bears had actually gone into the 1940 title match 8-3, scoring less and allowing more points than their 9-2 opponents that day. So what happened & why were they so dominant in this game?
It’s all about the T-formation and the development of the quarterback position. Ironic really as Redskins passer slingin’ Sammy Baugh led the league in passing that year too. (With 1,367 yards – the NFL has changed somewhat over the years!).
Background to the game
Going into the 1940 season there were some observers who felt the Bears had assembled their best ever team. The 1939 draft had added quarterback Sid Luckman, running back Bill Osmanski, & guard Ray Bray to an already excellent squad. That had been backed up in 1940 with the first two picks of centre/linebacker Clyde “Bulldog” Turner and end Ken Kavanaugh. A trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for first-round running back George McAfee rounded things out.
It takes time for a team to gel of course and they weren’t as dominant as perhaps expected. By week nine they were 6-2 and awaiting a contest with the East leading Redskins.
That was a closely contested game that they lost 7-3. The Bears management and players alike cried foul. They argued Bill Osmanski had his hands pinned to his side in the End Zone negating a potential game winner.
Washington reacted by calling them cry babies. Bulletin board material if ever there was any going into the title game rematch! The Bears would go on to fulfill their potential between 1940 and 1943, going 37-5-1, appearing in 4 straight title games and winning three of them.
Perhaps Washington shouldn’t have poked fun at them via the press. Because the peak of their success came in this 1940 title game & changed the way offenses operated.
The first thing to say is the Bears did not invent the T-formation. It had been around since the late 1800’s. However the T died out as the Single Wing became the favoured approach.
By the 1930’s though because of the smaller more aerodynamic ball the time was right for a revival. Chicago University coach Clark Shaughnessy had great success with the formation. He favoured using the man-in-motion and the counter play. The man-in-motion spread the defense and the counter play was designed to send a runner across the grain through the line of scrimmage.
That great success was partially due to defenses not being used to facing the formation at this time. George Halas brought Shaughnessy in to consult for the NFL title game.
A key to that being a success was also recruiting Solly Sherman. He had direct experience with the T-formation under Clark Shaughnessy as the QB at the University of Chicago. Playing as Sid Luckman’s backup he was able to pass on the nuances of the system.
The 1940’s Milestone game itself
The Bears won the toss and received the ball. They returned the ball to the 25. A slice of luck came when the ball was knocked loose but went out of bounds.
Chicago wanted to know if Washington would employ the same D as last time out. So they had three scripted plays to see to start out with to test just that.
The first play was an 8 yard gain from McAfee. Luckman saw the same 5-3-3 D from their 7-3 defeat and called the next play accordingly. Halas called an off tackle play to Osmanski, George Wilson threw a great block and Osmanski scampered 68 yards to open the scoring.
The home crowd had something to cheer on the ensuing kickoff as it was brought back 62 yards to the Chicago 32 before Osmanski made the tackle. Three and out and a missed Field Goal followed. Which pretty much proved to be the high point for Washington.
The Bears predominantly ran out of the T, gaining 406 yards on the ground, and 507 yards overall. They scored 11 unanswered touchdowns in all, and by the end of the game were running or passing for extra points so as not to lose any more balls kicked into the stands.
You can read a fantastically detailed account of the title game over at goldenrankings.com.
In 1940 the Bears were the only pro team using the T-formation. They could not have found a better platform or performance to demonstrate its potential.
Clark Shaughnessy moved on to coach Stanford where he took over a team that had won one game the previous season, installed the T, and went undefeated. A few weeks after the Bears game, Stanford beat favoured Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, and these two championships made the football world take notice.
From a pro football point of view this one milestone game had a huge impact. It demonstrated the potential for this formation, that would go on to be a staple of the game.
These things are never immediate. By 1944 for example there were 10 NFL teams and four of them (Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and Cleveland), were definitely employing the T. Green Bay would switch to the T in 1947, and the Giants in 1949.
As more and more people entered the armed services, it is possible that many traditionalist coaches from a single wing background found themselves coaching alongside experts in the T on service teams. It has been argued that this also helped disseminate the T-formation approach.
At the end of the day though, this single game on December the 8th 1940 was critical. It demonstrated in the most dramatic fashion possible the attacking potential of the T-formation.
Whilst the Bears ran for 406 yards and 7 touchdowns out of it, the key to its success would be how much it further opened up the passing game.
We know the NFL has consistently opened up over the years – exciting offense and scoring sells, and this was a key part of that development.
Banner image: The Bears celebrate their unthinkably dominant win. Image from chicagobears.com