Friday, December 17, 2010

December 17, 1933: The first championship

CHICAGO - Before there was a Super Bowl and several rounds of playoffs, there was, for many years, a single postseason game every year in the NFL. The NFL Championship Game was held between the winners of the two divisions, and most years that was it.

Before 1933, there wasn't even that game, as the team with the best record at the end of the season was declared the NFL champion. But the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans had ended the 1932 season in a tie, forcing a playoff game for the championship. That game drew enough anticipation and excitement that the league decided to start playing a championship game. The NFL divided teams into Eastern and Western divisions for the 1933 season and, for the first time, scheduled a championship game, to be held December 17.

The Bears earned a trip to the inagural game by winning the West with a 10-2-1 record. They were matched up against the New York Giants, champions of the East with an 11-3 record. Though the Giants had more wins, the Bears had a better winning percentage (the NFL didn't count tie games in the standings back then), so the Championship Game was held in Wrigley Field.

Chicago had two of the most famous players in the NFL on their side in Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski, plus they were coached by the legendary George Halas. The Giants didn't have as many famous names, but were nonetheless considered a worthy opponent for the defending champion Bears

From the Giants perspective, the game was noteworthy for a couple of trick plays they ran before such plays became fashionable. In the first, the Giants tried an early version of the fumblerooski, with center Mel Hein picking up the ball. The play was set up to work well, except Hein got too excited in seeing the empty field in front of him and didn't wait for his blockers to get out there to help him.

After Chicago took a 16-14 lead on a jump pass by Nagurski, the Giants went for their second trick play, executing a flea-flicker pass off a reverse. Though the play only went for 8 yards, unlike the modern game in which flea flickers are designed as long passes, it was enough to give the Giants a 21-16 lead.

With time running out in the game, it was the Bears' turn to get inventive. With less than two minutes left, Nagurski threw another jump pass. The Giants were ready for it and seemed to have the receiver covered, but the receiver got off a lateral. The successful hook-and-ladder play resulted in a go-ahead touchdown.

Down to their last chance, New York started moving downfield again. With the clock about to run out, the Giants tried their own version of the hook and ladder. Grange recognized the play, though, and when he hit intended receiver Red Badgro, he wrapped up Badgro's arms rather than his legs, preventing the lateral. Grange's tackle was the last play of the game, and the Bears won the championship.

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