Friday, June 22, 2012

Football History 101: The '30s, '40s and '50s

In today’s Football History 101 lesson, which is our second-to-last lesson for this offseason*, we start with some much-needed rule changes in the early 1930’s that were designed to breathe life into the on-field action, and we finish with a benchmark moment in the history of the NFL known simply as “The Game.” 

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the pro game was moving right along.  It had survived the depleted rosters caused by World War I and the emergence of Red Grange in Chicago gave the NFL the shot of popularity it needed. 


Even with brilliant performances by stand-out players like Grange, though, the game of football was a little short on excitement.  As the initial mystique of the game was starting to wear off with the public, changes were needed to make the game more compelling.  

For one thing, offenses didn’t want to get pinned against the sideline, so they tended to run the ball right up the middle of the field.  This resulted in bogged-down teams exchanging never-ending volleys of punts; there were also lots of tie results.  To remedy the situation, a few rules changes—advocated by Bears owner and coach George Halas and Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall—were made before the 1933 season. 

First, hash marks were added to the field:  two sets of short lines, painted perpendicular to the sidelines, running down the middle of the field (often there are also hash marks painted right at the sidelines) (see below).  Originally, they were positioned 15 yards (45 feet) from the sidelines; today the rules require them to be placed at a distance of 70 feet, nine inches from the sidelines.  If a play ends out of bounds, or in the area between the hash marks and the sideline, the ball is brought back to the nearest hash mark for the next play. 

A football from the 1890s
The second rule change was to allow forward passes to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage; previously, they could only be thrown from a point at least five yards behind the line.  Third, the goal posts, which had been moved to the back of the end zone in 1927, were moved back to their original spot—the goal line (which, thankfully, is not the case today).  Finally, the shape of the ball was streamlined to make it easier to carry and throw; its previous dimensions favored kicking.  The ball’s shape would continue to evolve over the decades, but this was a good start.

These changes opened up the game tremendously and resulted in far fewer tie results.  For example, the closer goal posts made teams more willing to chance a field goal attempt in the waning moments of the game.  The most striking change, though, was that coaches and players could develop a sideline-to-sideline mentality in designing plays.  Plus, the ability to throw a pass immediately after the snap gave teams more chances to be creative with fakes handoffs and other trick plays.  Passing finally became more than a last-ditch desperation play.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more improvement enacted by the NFL in 1933.  The league divided the teams into Eastern and Western divisions and established a championship game between the winners of each division to determine the league champion.  Up to that point, champions were determined by an examination of team records and league agreement—which, as you might imagine, wasn’t always easy to come by.


The period between 1930 and 1960 witnessed several developments that improved player safety.  Among these were:

  • Improvements in equipment construction with the invention of fibershell, molded leather and plastic helmets; similar materials began to be used for shoulder pads as well;
  • The facemask and chinstrap were invented, though not widely used; the single-bar facemask was first used in 1955;
  • A 1959 facemask
    Grasping the facemask of any opposing player other than the runner was deemed illegal in 1956 (grasping the runner’s facemask was made illegal in 1962);
  • Helmet use was made mandatory in 1943; and
  • Another official, the Back Judge, was added in 1947


The development of faster and more open offenses allowed more offensive talents to stand out from the crowd.  The first great passer was “Slingin” Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins.  Even though he wasn’t actually the Redskins’ quarterback until 1944, seven years after joining the team, Baugh led the team in passing in three of those first seven seasons.  He could throw fast, accurate passes through the tightest spaces and at both short and long distances.  He was also adept at connecting with receivers who were on the run, a rare skill at the time.

As you learned in my post on wide receiver legends, Don Hutson of the Green Bay Packers was decades ahead of his time in the level of his skill and athleticism.  His sure feet let him make sharp cuts in his running routes and he befuddled defenders by adding a burst of speed see he could come under the ball at the end of its trajectory.  Like so many players of that time, Hutson played on defense as well as offense; he was also a prolific kicker.  He was such a talent, and so ahead of his time, that no less than seven of his records still stand today.


Da Bears:  Despite the other-worldly talent of Baugh and Hutson, though, neither the Redskins nor the Packers were the dominant team of the pre-World War II period.  This title belonged to the Chicago Bears, led by quarterback Sid Luckman.  The Bears, still coached by the great George Halas, were stacked with talent at virtually every position on offense and defense.  Their dominating style of play led them to the championship game each year from 1940 to 1943, with three wins in those four appearances.  One of those wins was the most lopsided victory in the history of the NFL, a 73-0 shellacking of the Washington Redskins.

The Cleveland Browns:  The 1940s were bookended by two dynasties:  the Chicago Bears at the start of the decade and the Cleveland Browns at the end of the decade.**  The Browns, coached by the talented Paul Brown, were absorbed by the NFL when the upstart All-American Football Conference (which had been founded by eight investors in 1946) collapsed in 1950.  Behind the ultra-reliable quarterback Otto “Automatic” Graham and a cadre of offensive stars, they had monopolized the top ranks of the AAFC, having a combined record of 23-1-2 in that league’s last two seasons. 

The city of Cleveland embraced the Browns immediately.  The NFL had moved their Rams, who had won the 1945 NFL championship, to Los Angeles.  It was poetic justice when the Browns met the LA Rams in the 1950 NFL championship—and won 30-28 on a last-minute field goal.  The Browns would continue their winning ways well into the 1950s, making it to the Big Game every year except one between 1950 and 1957 (they missed it in 1956).  As for the actual championships, they traded off and on with the Detroit Lions, their closest competitors.

The Baltimore Colts:   The late 1950s saw the emergence of the Baltimore Colts as the team to beat in the NFL.  Though he had many potent offensive weapons at his disposal, the rise of the Colts can be attributed to one player:  Johnny Unitas, whom many experts consider to be the best quarterback of all time.  Unitas’ primary gift was what we now call “football intelligence.”  He could read defenses flawlessly and was an efficient passer, able to anticipate where his receivers would be when his passes would reach them.  He also had the courage to stand his ground when the pocket was collapsing around him, often taking big hits.  The Colts’ defense could hold its own against any team, with players known for their toughness—like tackle Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb (right) and defensive end Gino Marchetti.


The other powerhouse of the late 1950s was the New York Giants.  The face of the Giants was superstar running back Frank Gifford, whom the Giants drafted in 1952 out of the University of Southern California.  It seemed almost inevitable that the two teams would meet to battle for the NFL championship, which they did in 1958.  Two fumbles by Gifford in the first half gave the opportunistic Colts a 14-3 lead at halftime.  New York fought back hard, though, eventually achieving a 17-14 lead.  However, the Colts scored last in regulation time, a game-tying field goal with seven seconds remaining—making this the first NFL title game to be settled in overtime.  After the Giants failed to score on their first possession, Unitas marched the Colts on an 80-yard drive, which was capped off with a one-yard touchdown run by the team’s running back Alan Ameche.

Football historians and experts consider this contest, known then and now as “The Game,” as the pivotal moment in which football became firmly rooted in American culture.  This was the first nationally-televised title game, and Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script to create the resulting tension and excitement.

Well, folks, that takes us up to 1960 in our Football History 101 timeline.  Stay tuned to this space and keep a look out for our last history lesson!

*My plan for the next offseason is a series where we look at the individual histories of each of the current NFL teams.

**As with the First World War, America’s involvement in World War II had a profound impact on the NFL.  Most able-bodied players coming out of college joined the military and, as football isn’t really built for the older guys that were left on the home front, there was a real danger of collapse.  However, the NFL survived, primarily by cannibalizing the less stable teams and merging the rosters of other teams. For example, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh merged for the 1943 season—shocking, I know!  Many NFL players lost their lives in World War II; click here for my D-Day post remembering two players who died in France after the Allied invasion.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a story about that 73-0 Bears victory over the Redskins in the 1940 NFL league championship game. "On [the Bears'] second play from scrimmage, running back Bill Osmanski ran 68 yards for a touchdown. Washington then marched to the Chicago 26-yard line on their ensuing drive, but wide receiver Charlie Malone dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone that would have tied the game. . . . Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh was interviewed after the game, and a sportswriter asked him whether the game would have been different had Malone not dropped the tying TD pass. Baugh reportedly quipped, 'Sure. The final score would have been 73-7.'"


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