Sunday, December 26, 2010

It was fifty years ago today...

Fifty years ago today a football game was played. It wasn’t any ordinary football game. No NFL championship game can ever be ordinary but when we look back at it now after a half-century of change in the way NFL football is played the 1960 NFL championship game takes on an antique quality; it becomes a black and white snapshot of an era of American society and sports history that we look back with an air of amused nostalgia.

By 1960 the NFL had finished its 40th season of operations. The league consisted of only thirteen teams (the season before there were only twelve but in 1960 the Dallas Cowboys had joined the NFL as an expansion team). The regular season was only twelve games long (that’s why the NFL championship game was played the day after Christmas). Indeed the following season the NFL would expand further—adding the Minnesota Vikings and increase the regular season schedule to fourteen games.

The NFL was expanding because it was facing a threat in the rival American Football League. Throughout the 1960s the two leagues would compete for talent before agreeing to merge in 1966 with the actual merger taking place in 1970. Pro football was growing up but in 1960 the game and the league still retained some of it antiquated aspects.

The 1960 NFL championship game was played in the afternoon like a regular season game instead of during primetime on TV which is where the Super Bowl is played now. If a team could not sell out it stadium on game day games could still be blacked out on local TV.

The NFL in 1960 was still predominately a white man’s game. The two teams that played that day: the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers, the Eagles had about five or six African-American players on its 33-man roster (today’s NFL teams have 53 man rosters and the vast majority of its players are African-American). The Packers I believe had a few more African-American players. In 1960 the Washington Redskins were the only NFL team which didn’t have an African-American player on its roster. (The following season they would integrate under pressure from the Kennedy Administration).

Small rosters required that players do double duty on the playing field. Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin not only took the snaps he also did the punting. Eagles tight end Bobby Walston not only blocked and caught passes, he also did the place-kicking too. Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung scored a record 176 points during the 1960 season because not only was he was running and catching touchdowns he was also kicking field goals and extra-points. His teammate Max McGee not only caught passes he also punted as well.

Even place-kicking back in 1960 was not the specialized art it is today. There were no soccer-style kickers who could ram it through the uprights at fifty yards. Place-kicking was straight-ahead only and even then it was an inexact science. Some teams had two place-kickers: one for short-range field goals and extra-points and another for long-distance field goal kicking.

Another aspect of having only 33 men on a roster was that when players got hurt it meant that some players would have to play offense and defense.

The 1960 NFL championship game is famous because Chuck Bednarik was one of the last NFL players to do double-duty during a game. It began during the fifth week of the regular season when two Eagles linebackers were injured during a game with the Cleveland Browns. Eagles legend Chuck Bednarik who was only playing center at the time was called up by Eagles head coach Buck Shaw to play linebacker as well. Bednarik did so and, in so doing, helped improve the Eagles defense while taking on a mythological aura that would later earn him a berth in the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame.

The Philadelphia Eagles team that played in the 1960 NFL championship game did not get there by a fluke. They were a talented team that balanced veteran stars with young quality players. Norm Van Brocklin and Chuck Bednarik were established All-Pros and future hall-of-famers. Football historian Sean Lahman ranks Van Brocklin the 14th greatest quarterback that ever played the game while Bednarik ranks 25th as a linebacker in Lahman’s ratings. Norm Van Brocklin was such a great quarterback that future NFL hall-of-fame quarterback Sonny Jurgenson was forced to sit on the bench for three years as Van Brocklin’s back-up.

The Eagles had a superb receiving corps. Split End Pete Retzlaff was Van Brocklin’s favorite target in short-yardage situations. Later in his career he would move to tight-end and become the fifth-greatest tight end according to Sean Lahman’s ratings. Flanker Tommy McDonald was a pint-sized speedster with rabbit-like moves. He was the Eagles deep-threat. In the 1960 NFL championship McDonald caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Van Brocklin that gave the Eagles a 7-6 lead in the second quarter.

The Eagles had a young running back named Ted Dean who had loads of potential but whose playing career was later cut short due to major injury but Dean made two key plays in the championship game. Late in the fourth quarter Ted Dean ran back a kickoff 58 yards and during the ensuing scoring drive would score the game-winning touchdown on a five yard run (with a key block thrown in by center Chuck Bednarik). Another fine running back was Timmy Brown who was one of the finest kick returners in the history of the game.

On defense linebacker Maxie Baughan was one of the smartest linebackers ever to play the game. The Eagles secondary had talented men like Tom Brookshier and Don Burroughs.

They were led by a wizened genial old man named Lawrence “Buck” Shaw. Shaw was a low-key father-figure whose worst oath was “Aw shucks!” and yet Shaw brilliantly mixed his veterans with his young players to make the Eagles contenders.

The team they face the Green Bay Packers were about to write a chapter in football history themselves. This was the first NFL post-season appearance for the Packers since 1944 and they were led by their relatively new head coach named Vince Lombardi.
Lombardi and the Packers would dominate the 1960s but on this day in 1960 that was all in the future. The Packers talent was already there: Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, and Paul Hornung in the backfield; Max McGee at wide receiver; Forrest Gregg, Jerry Kramer, Fuzzy Thurston, and Jim Ringo on the offensive line; Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, and Ray Nitschke, and Willie Wood on defense. Future legends and immortals all but this was their first ever taste of the pressure cooker atmosphere that is NFL championship football.

The game itself was a rather crude affair. The Eagles first offensive play from scrimmage results in a Green Bay interception. Four times the Packers drive deep into Eagle territory but the Eagles defense while bending never breaks. The Packers get only two field goals and twice fail to convert on fourth-down situations. (After the game Vince Lombardi blamed himself for the Packers defeat citing the two failed fourth-down conversions as the main reason. He told the press that if he had ordered Paul Hornung to kick instead going for it, the Packers would have had two more field goals—and the game).

The Eagles offense is inconsistent. Norm Van Brocklin only completes nine of twenty passes yet gains more yards passing than Bart Starr does. The touchdown pass to Tommy McDonald was the biggest pass of the day for Norm. Still the Eagles only get ninety-nine yards rushing and commit three turnovers.

Still it is the Eagles that make the big plays: the McDonald TD pass and the Ted Dean kick return. The Packers come up empty even though they have a potent running game. Early in the fourth quarter they regain the lead on a Max McGee touchdown pass but when Ted Dean scores in the offensive series that follows it the Eagles have a 17-13 lead when the Packers make their final drive.

When it all ended with Chuck Bednarik making an open-field tackle of Jim Taylor at the Eagles nine yard line with the clock running out the Eagles became NFL champions and the Green Bay Packers would suffer the only post-season loss during the coaching reign of the immortal Vince Lombardi. Lombardi and the Packers would learn vital lessons from this defeat and would emerge far stronger and far tougher in future post-season appearances to come.

For Buck Shaw and Norm Van Brocklin this was the last hurrah. Buck Shaw retired from coaching. Van Brocklin quit his playing career and hoped to succeed Shaw as Eagles head coach. He was not chosen and so he became the head coach of the expansion Minnesota Vikings and later the Atlanta Falcons.

Bednarik kept playing for two more seasons and made it to the hall-of-fame as did Van Brocklin and McDonald and Retzlaff too. Tom Brookshier’s playing career ended the following season and he became an NFL broadcaster. Sonny Jurgenson took over as the Eagles starting quarterback before being traded to Washington in 1964 (a sad day for the Philadelphia bartenders).

And so that football game played on December 26, 1960 was not only a game it was also the final chapter of an era.

The game was never going to be the same again—and neither would America.

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