Cold-weather title game has come full circle for the NFL
As the National Football League prepares for its first cold-weather Super Bowl, keep this in mind as Sunday's kickoff approaches. Between 1933 and 1965, when the league's title matchup was known simply as the NFL Championship Game and a majority of teams were based in the Northeast and Midwest, nearly all the contests were played in cold and sometimes brutal weather.
The 1945 game in Cleveland took place in the aftermath of a snowstorm, with the temperature below zero. The 1948 game in Philadelphia was played in a snowstorm. Even Los Angeles wasn't immune from the elements. The '49 title game was played during a driving rain that turned the L.A. Coliseum floor to a muddy mess.
But it wasn't until a pair of frosty championship games in the early 1960s that NFL officials started to ask if perhaps it wouldn't be wise to hold the league's showcase game at a neutral, warm-weather site, a place where the condition and skill of the players, and not the condition and chill of the field, would determine the best team.
The irony is that those two games involved the New York Giants, whose MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., serves as the venue for Sunday's Super Bowl XLVIII.
Professional football in the early 1960s is best remembered for the rise of the Green Bay Packers, the Vince Lombardi-led powerhouse that won five world championships in seven years, culminating with victories in the first two Super Bowls. But the most imaginative NFL offense of that time was piling up yards and points along the East River in Yankee Stadium. The New York Giants, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle, were one of the first NFL teams that threw the ball nearly as often as it ran it.
The '62 title game at Yankee Stadium took place in conditions that one local broadcaster called "barbaric." Temperatures barely made it out of the teens and the winds gusted to nearly 40 mph. TV crews built fires in the dugouts to thaw out their cameras. Team benches were blown over. It was not a day for throwing the football.
"The ball was like a diving duck," said Tittle, who completed 18 of 41 passes for 197 yards. "I threw one pass and it almost came back to me."
The run-oriented Packers proved superior as Hall of Famer Jim Taylor rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown and Jerry Kramer kicked three field goals. The Giants' lone score came on a blocked punt as Green Bay won its second straight championship, 16-7.
Surely 1963 would be different for the Giants though. New York had defeated the Bears 26-24 at Wrigley Field during the '62 regular season and both lineups were basically the same. But the '62 game was played with temperatures in the 40s. The '63 title game temperature at kickoff was in single digits with an 11 mph wind blowing off Lake Michigan.
The Giants seemed up to the task, taking a 7-0 lead on a Tittle to Frank Gifford TD pass. The margin nearly grew to 14-0 when Tittle threw to a wide-open Del Shofner at the Chicago goal line, but the ball bounced off the wide receiver's frozen fingers. One play later Bears linebacker Larry Morris intercepted a Tittle screen pass, returning the ball to the Giants 5-yard line. The Bears scored and what could have been a 14-0 Giants lead had turned into a 7-7 game.
Even worse, on the TD pass to Gifford, Morris had rolled into Tittle's legs, injuring the quarterback's left knee. The combination of the cold and pain limited Tittle's effectiveness the rest of the game. The Giants managed to take a 10-7 halftime lead but another Tittle interception (he threw five in the game) set up Chicago's go-ahead score and the Bears defense did the rest for a 14-10 victory.
Would the Giants have prevailed in milder conditions? Considering the quality of a Bears defense that had limited the Packers to a combined 10 points during two regular-season games and created nearly 60 turnovers that is not a given.
But the Giants and their fans could only look longingly at a game that was played one week later in the warmth of southern California. Guided by coach Sid Gillman, the pass-oriented San Diego Chargers threw for more than 300 yards and routed the Boston Patriots 51-10 for the 1963 American Football League championship.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, a native Californian, certainly took notice. Once the NFL-AFL merger of 1966 created the championship game that would become the Super Bowl, Rozelle and the owners from both leagues agreed that the sport's showcase attraction should be played in the best environment possible.
The first Super Bowl culminated the '66 season in the sun and warmth of the L.A. Coliseum, where the Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. Not only was the weather superior but football looked better. The '65 NFL Championship Game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field had been played on a sub-freezing day that featured intermittent snow and a ghastly muddy field. A TV audience could barely make out the numbers on the white jerseys of the visiting Cleveland Browns.
Super Bowl I was played on an immaculate grass field in the sunshine with temperatures in the 50s. The game eventually would rotate among warm-weather sites and domed stadiums.
When the Giants finally registered their first NFL championship in 30 years at the end of the 1986 season, quarterback Phil Simms completed 22 of 25 passes in the Super Bowl XXI victory over the Denver Broncos. The game was played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. It's difficult to imagine Simms completing 88 percent of his passes in the wind at Yankee Stadium in December 1962 or in the cold of Wrigley Field in December '63.
And it's equally hard imagining Giants wide receiver David Tyree making a one-handed catch of an Eli Manning pass in wintry weather as he did in Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., to set up the winning TD against the Patriots at the end of the 2007 season. He might have suffered the same fate as Shofner.
Rozelle, who stepped down as commissioner in 1989, always favored the best possible conditions for players and fans, but his successors took a different view. Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell believed good television ratings trumped good weather. Where December and January night games in outdoor Northern stadiums were off-limits for Rozelle, Tagliabue and Goodell endorsed putting the best matchups before a prime-time audience, regardless of location.
Yes, frigid conditions have severely tested players and fans on winter nights in Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Foxboro, Mass. But these games are terrific theater for TV audiences watching from the warmth of their living rooms or sports bars. The lower the thermometer drops, the more ratings seem to climb.
Professional football had gone back into the cold.
If the Seattle Seahawks are to play the role of the '63 Bears in defensing the record-setting passing attack of the Denver Broncos, with Peyton Manning playing the part of Y.A. Tittle, it will be interesting to see whether weather returns to a supporting role in the NFL's premier game.