Eighty years ago, NFL made changes that would forever alter the future
Eighty years ago, as Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration began recharging the U.S. economy, the National Football League developed its own New Deal, a series of moves that brought structure to a chaotic, struggling enterprise that often appeared minor league, especially when compared to the more popular college game.
In 1933 the NFL split into two divisions and organized the first NFL Championship Game, now known as the Super Bowl. Unlike the initial Super Bowl three decades later, the inaugural '33 NFL title match was a thriller that featured six lead changes.
The league also codified its rules for the forward pass that season, making any ball thrown behind the line of scrimmage a legal play. Before 1933, a legal pass had to be tossed from at least five yards behind the scrimmage line. The amended rule brought the passing game out of football's dark ages and placed more value on the quarterback position.
The NFL Championship Game era ran through the 1965 season and established the Hall of Fame credentials of Don Hutson, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Steve Van Buren, Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown and the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers.
Comparing what the NFL was like before 1933 to what came afterward is like viewing the United States during the era of the ineffectual Articles of Confederation instead of the thriving nation that took shape after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Imagine an NFL with less structure than an intramural weekend on fraternity row, a league devoid of divisions, whose membership shifted from year to year and whose teams played a different number of games.
That was the NFL during its first 13 seasons.
As with today's English Premier League in soccer, there was only one division with the regular season deciding the league champion.
There were no playoffs. If fans wanted postseason football there was always college football's Rose Bowl, which since New Year's Day 1902 had matched a top team from the West Coast against a challenger from east of the Rockies.
The NFL started with 14 teams in 1920. It reached a high of 22 in 1926, following Red Grange's popular barnstorming tour in late '25 and early '26, but dropped to 12 teams in '27 and had sunk to eight in '32, as the tsunami of the Great Depression drowned U.S. businesses and made leisure time scarce for most Americans.
Winning didn't guarantee survival. Four of the NFL's early champions, the Akron Pros (1920), the Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs ('22-24), the Frankford Yellow Jackets ('26) and the Providence Steam Rollers ('28), were all gone by '32.
Then there was the schedule. In 1929 the champion Packers played 13 games, the runner-up New York Giants played 15 and third-place Frankford played 19. The cellar-dwelling Dayton Triangles took the field only six times.
An extra game gave the Chicago Cardinals (11-2-1) the 1925 NFL title over the Pottsville (Pa.) Maroons (10-2), who had had their schedule suspended after they played a non-sanctioned exhibition game in Philadelphia.
Ties were not counted in the standings, leading to the first NFL playoff game in 1932 between the 6-1-6 Chicago Bears and the 6-1-4 Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans. Snow forced Bears owner/coach George Halas to move the game indoors to Chicago Stadium where an 80-yard playing field was squeezed into an arena better known for hockey and the circus. The Bears won 9-0 before an audience of fedora-wearing fans who could have passed for members of the Capone gang.
The NFL was a mishmash. Small wonder college football was more popular in the early 1930s.
Oddly, it was one of most conservative owners in football history who carried the banner of change. George Preston Marshall, who ran the fledgling Boston Braves NFL franchise, was a bigoted bully of a man who opposed integration in pro football, fought the formation of a players' union and soon would change the nickname of his team to the Redskins.
But Marshall was a showman who possessed a sense of the future. He would become one of the first NFL owners to see the potential of televising games. And in 1933 he, along with Halas, persuaded his fellow owners that matching the winners of an Eastern and Western Division in a championship game would draw more fans and build publicity for the league.
He also pushed for the new passing rule, a change that paid huge dividends in 1937 when the Redskins drafted quarterback Sammy Baugh. Baugh would lead the Redskins to two NFL championships.
Also in 1933, Art Rooney's Pittsburgh franchise made its NFL debut, although it would be four decades before the Steelers would become a force on the field.
An outline of the modern NFL was beginning to form.
In 1933, the Giants (11-3) dominated the Eastern Division while the Bears (10-2-1) ruled the West, setting up a compelling championship confrontation before 26,000 fans at Wrigley Field on Dec. 17. A 29-yard TD pass from Harry Newman to Red Badgro gave the Giants a 7-6 halftime lead, but the Bears bounced back for a 16-14 edge after three quarters.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Giants retook the lead but the Bears rallied again. From the Giants' 33-yard line, Bronco Nagurski threw a pass to Bill Hewitt (the last NFL player not to wear a helmet), who then lateraled to Bill Karr on the Giants' 19. Karr dashed into the end zone to give the Bears a 23-21 victory.
The Giants rebounded one year later in the famous "Sneakers Game." Trailing 13-3 after three quarters, the Giants changed into basketball shoes to better navigate the Polo Grounds' frozen turf. The move resulted in 27 unanswered points, including two TD runs from future Hall of Famer Ken Strong and a 30-13 Giants victory.
Not that the reforms of 1933 were a panacea for all that ailed the league. Teams continued to play schedules of different lengths until '36, and franchises continued to move or disappear, although at a much slower rate. Not until 1953 would the NFL settle on 12 franchises that still exist today.
The 1936 NFL Championship Game between the Boston Redskins and the Packers had to be moved from Boston to New York due to the lack of interest in the Redskins' hometown. The 'Skins had drawn poorly all season and nearly everyone in Boston knew that Marshall was planning to move the team. Boston Herald columnist Bob Dunbar wrote: "[A]ll the Boston football followers lose by the transfer of the Redskins-Packers championship game is the right to stay away."
Green Bay beat the Redskins 21-6 before a crowd of nearly 30,000 fans at the Polo Grounds, far more than would have shown up in Boston. Four days later, Marshall announced the team was indeed moving to Washington. NFL football would not return to Boston until the Patriots joined the league with the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
The 1937 NFL title game at Wrigley Field between the now-Washington Redskins and the Bears was marred by perhaps the worst fight in championship game history. Baugh, who also played defensive back, blasted the Bears' Dick Plasman in front of the Washington bench. Plasman came up swinging, not a particularly wise strategy when surrounded by Redskins. The Washington players began pummeling Plasman, whose Bears teammates rushed to join the fracas. Dozens of Bears fans poured out of the stands to get a piece of the action as police and ushers were required to restore order.
As for the game, Baugh threw for more than 350 yards and three touchdowns as the Redskins stunned the Bears 28-21 for their first NFL championship. It was the only postseason game that the Bears would ever lose at Wrigley.
The NFL Championship Game wasn't nearly as slick or as commercially successful as the Super Bowl, but it did have advantages. Games were played in front of boisterous home crowds in historic arenas like Wrigley, the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Lambeau Field, Philadelphia's Shibe Park and Franklin Field and Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. The Los Angeles Coliseum became the only stadium to host both an NFL Championship Game and a Super Bowl.
Because the games were played in December, cold and inclement weather were often part of the scene.
Only first-place teams could compete for the championship, giving the regular season far more significance than today's 16-game schedule. There were no wild-card qualifiers.
The championship game era between 1933 and '65 produced a succession of legendary teams. Led by quarterback Sid Luckman, the Bears, dubbed Monsters of the Midway, won four NFL crowns during the 1940s, including a 73-0 blasting of the Redskins in the '40 title game. The innovative Cleveland Browns, guided by coach Paul Brown and the passing of Otto Graham, captured three championships in the 1950s. The Detroit Lions won titles in 1952, '53 and '57, all over the favored Browns.
The Baltimore Colts and quarterback Johnny Unitas won back-to-back championships in 1958-59, including the '58 NFL title game, an overtime classic against the Giants that was called "the greatest game ever played."
Finally, the Packers dynasty kicked off with NFL championships in 1961, '62 and '65. Green Bay then routed AFL opposition to win the first two Super Bowls at the ends of the 1966 and '67 seasons.
Yet with the 1970 merger and the subsequent growth of the Super Bowl, the NFL Championship Game era not only faded in memory but also the game itself was reduced in stature. Instead of being regarded as equal to the Super Bowl, the NFL title games between 1933 and '65 are listed in the NFL Record Book under "NFC championship games," even though, since '70, the winner of the NFC title game has gained only a conference crown, not a league championship.
Raising a Super Bowl loser like the 2012 San Francisco 49ers to the same level as NFL champions like the '62 Packers, the '58 Colts, the '55 Browns or the '41 Bears mocks history. It was as if baseball downgraded all World Series winners before the start of division play in 1969.
And it wasn't only the championship games that were relegated to second-class status.
When ESPN rated the top 20 coaches in NFL history, the list was heavily weighted toward coaches from the Super Bowl era. Weeb Ewbank, who won those NFL two titles with the 1958-59 Colts and then led the New York Jets to a stunning Super Bowl III win over Baltimore, was omitted. Yet Marv Levy and Bud Grant, Super Bowl-era coaches who never won pro football's ultimate game, were selected.
Paul Brown, usually regarded as one of the top two or three coaches in NFL history, couldn't crack the top five.
How often have TV networks displayed graphics highlighting an achievement by an NFL team or individual, with a qualifying line at the bottom saying "since the 1970 merger"?
Was there no pro football before 1970? Did NFL used to stand for the National Federation of Lacrosse?
Football historians can debate which season created the most lasting impact on the NFL. Perhaps it was 1946, when the league integrated, established a permanent base on the West Coast and shattered attendance records. What about 1950, when the NFL absorbed the powerhouse Browns and the up-and-coming 49ers from the All-America Football Conference?
The 1958 season featured the overtime title game between the Colts and Giants that helped ignite pro football's mass appeal. In 1960 Pete Rozelle began his landmark tenure as NFL commissioner, the upstart American Football League opened play and the Lombardi Packers appeared in their first championship game.
The 1966 season culminated with the first Super Bowl, leading to the full NFL-AFL merger in '70. In 1978 the NFL expanded to 16 games and liberalized its passing rules, opening up offenses that had become too stagnant.
But there's a strong case to be argued for the 1933 season. Those historic reforms that created the postseason and liberated the passing game continue to resonate in the NFL, 80 years later.