Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Monsters of the Midway

Seventy years ago today, on December 8, 1940, the Bears enjoyed the most phenomenal day of their illustrious history. The following account is reprinted from the recent book Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports.

     As the two men left the field after the 1940 National Football League championship game, Bill Osmanski of the Bears tried to console Washington quarterback Sammy Baugh. “Don’t feel bad, Sam,” Osmanski said. “Think what would have happened if Charlie Malone had caught that first long pass.” With the Redskins trailing 7-0 on their first possession, Baugh had fired a perfect strike to Malone, who was wide open at the Bears’ four-yard line, for an apparent game-tying touchdown. Alas, the ball had gone right through Malone’s hands.
     “If Malone had caught that pass,” Baugh replied to Osmanski, “the score would have been 73-7.”
     Indeed, the Bears had annihilated the Redskins 73-0. “The weather was perfect,” wrote Arthur Daley of The New York Times. “So were the Bears.” It remains the most lopsided game in NFL history, and it started the Bears on a run in which they’d win three championships in four years.
     The Redskins were champions of the East at 9-2, the Bears champions of the West at 8-3. The Bears were back in Washington’s Griffith Stadium just three weeks after a hard-fought and disputed loss to the Redskins, in the ninth game of the regular season, which had made the difference in the teams’ records.
     In that game, the Bears trailed 7-3 with time running out when quarterback Sid Luckman found George McAfee deep in Washington territory. After McAfee was brought down at the one-yard line, he feigned injury to stop the clock with 10 seconds left (the Bears were out of timeouts), and was flagged for delay of game. Pushed back to the six-yard line by the penalty, Luckman had time enough to attempt two passes. The first fell incomplete. The second appeared to find Osmanski clear in the end zone. “Frank Filchock grabbed me from behind,” Osmanski later recalled, “and pulled my arms against my sides. The ball hit my chest and flopped to the ground. The gun went off.” The Redskins escaped with the win. The officials escaped into one of the stadium’s baseball dugouts and down the tunnel to the sanctuary of their locker room with Bears coach George Halas in hot pursuit, spewing all the profanities he could think of—and he had a considerable repertoire from which to draw.
     The Bears blamed their defeat on favorable home-field officiating for Washington. This was music to the ears of George Preston Marshall, the Redskins’ colorful owner, who never missed an opportunity to stir the pot where Halas was concerned. “The Bears are a bunch of crybabies,” Marshall pronounced. “They are quitters. They fold up when the going gets tough.”
     When it became clear that the two teams would play again in the championship game, Marshall stepped up his verbal assaults on the Bears. “They are the world’s greatest crybabies,” he repeated. “We have whipped them before and we will whip them again.” Marshall surely realized that he was providing bulletin-board fodder for Halas and the Bears, but there was a method to his madness. Early in the week before the rematch, he sent Halas a telegram. “Congratulations,” he wrote. “Game will be sold out by Tuesday night. We should play for the championship every year.”

     Game day was clear and crisp, with a temperature of 39 degrees. “A perfect day for football!” Marshall exclaimed to reporters and fans from his box behind the Redskins’ bench. The overflow crowd at Griffith Stadium was joined by a nationwide radio audience; this was the first NFL game to be broadcast coast-to-coast.
     The Redskins’ hopes were carried by Sammy Baugh, pro football’s first great passer, who had led the league that year for the second time (he led the league in passing six times all told). Baugh was also the NFL’s finest punter—his career average of 45.1 yards per kick is still the best ever—and an outstanding defensive back who was perennially among the league leaders in interceptions.
     The Bears were led by their second-year quarterback Sid Luckman, who, like Baugh, also played defensive back and was his team’s regular punter. Though not as accomplished a passer as Slingin’ Sammy, Luckman was the ideal man for the Bears’ modified T-formation offense, which put a variety of options at his disposal and required him to mix them up in response to what the defense was doing.
     The game pitted the NFL’s best passing team, the Redskins, against its best running team, the Bears. The Redskins had stopped the Bears in the regular-season game and saw no reason why they wouldn’t do so again. But Halas had spent hour after hour studying films of the 7-3 loss, and he had returned to Washington convinced that if the Redskins came back with their customary 5-3-3 defensive alignment, Luckman and the Bears would have a field day.
     As the Bears left the locker room, Halas gave Luckman three plays he had scripted; each was designed to exploit a specific weakness that Halas had identified in the Redskin defense. The Bears would use these plays on their first possession to test Washington’s responses to their man-in-motion schemes.
     The Bears began from their own 24-yard line after the opening kickoff. The first of the scripted plays was a fake reverse with man-in-motion. Luckman handed off to George McAfee, who gained eight yards. Halas was elated. He now knew that the Redskins were not prepared to make the adjustments necessary to stop his offense.
     On the second play, McAfee went in motion to the right, and Luckman pitched left to Osmanski, who found a hole through the line, stiff-armed a linebacker out of the way, swung to the outside, and raced 68 yards for a touchdown. A flying body block by George Wilson obliterated the last two Redskin defenders about 35 yards from the goal line.
     Luckman didn’t need to call the third of the scripted plays. “I signaled the coach that the Redskins were in the old defense and he could sit back and relax,” he said. Jack Manders kicked the extra point to put the Bears ahead 7-0. The game was less than a minute old. “I was delighted,” Halas wrote in his autobiography. “I knew we could collect enough points to win the championship. Our adjusted plays could go time and again through the weaknesses we had detected in the Washington defense.”
     Max Krause of the Redskins returned the ensuing kickoff to the Bears’ 32, and might have gone all the way but for a fine open-field tackle by Osmanski. A few plays later, from the 19, Baugh went to the air and found Charlie Malone all alone for an apparent touchdown. Malone dropped the ball. Washington then attempted and missed a 32-yard field goal.
     The Redskins were never in the game after Malone’s miscue. The Bears’ next drive took them 80 yards in 18 plays, all on the ground, with Luckman scoring on a quarterback sneak. The kick by Bob Snyder made it 14-0.
     Baugh was unable to move the Redskins on their second possession, and his punt was partially blocked, giving the Bears the ball in Washington territory. The Bears’ subsequent “drive” consisted of one play: a Luckman lateral to Joe Maniaci, who went around left end and scampered 42 yards for a touchdown. Phil Martinovich’s extra point gave the Bears a 21-0 lead.
     Baugh was replaced at quarterback by Frank Filchock, who fared little better. An interception by Ray Nolting set up the Bears’ fourth touchdown, a 30-yard pass from Luckman to Ken Kavanaugh.

     It was 28-0 at halftime. Unbelievably, things only got worse for Washington in the second half. On just the second play of the third quarter, Hampton Pool picked off a pass by Baugh and returned it 15 yards for the Bears’ fifth touchdown. The Bears would go on to score three more touchdowns in the third quarter and another three in the fourth, even with Luckman sitting out the entire time.
     Early in the third quarter, the fans stopped cheering. A little later, the Redskins marching band—George Preston Marshall’s pride and joy—quit playing, and Marshall himself sat in stunned silence. The fans were roused from their torpor only when an announcement came over the public-address system promoting 1941 season tickets. They booed themselves hoarse, then sat back down to watch the disaster play itself out. By the fourth quarter, the stands were largely empty, and the fans still remaining had taken to cheering for the Bears.
     One phrase became so familiar over the course of the afternoon that each time the stadium announcer started to say it, the fans chanted along in unison: “Lee Artoe will kick off for the Bears.”
     Ten different players scored the Bears’ 11 touchdowns, and six Bears were responsible for the seven successful extra points. In all, 15 different Bears scored in the game. After the 10th touchdown, the officials asked Halas not to kick any more extra points, as they were running out of footballs. Accordingly, the Bears passed on the last two extra-point attempts.
     When it was over, the Bears had gained an amazing 382 yards on the ground to Washington’s 22. They had attempted only eight passes and completed six, for 119 yards. The Redskins had passed 51 times, completing just 20 for 223 yards. Baugh, Filchock, and Roy Zimmerman had thrown eight interceptions, with the Bears returning three of them for touchdowns.
     “It was one of those days,” Halas said. “Everything we did, we did right. Everything they did, they did wrong.”

     This is how the Bears scored:
     First quarter. Osmanski, 68-yard run (Manders kick). Luckman, one-yard run (Snyder kick). Maniaci, 42-yard run (Martinovich kick). 21-0.
     Second quarter. Kavanaugh, 30-yard pass from Luckman (Snyder kick). 28-0.
     Third quarter. Pool, 15-yard interception return (Dick Plasman kick). Nolting, 23-yard run (Plasman’s kick missed). McAfee, 34-yard interception return (Joe Stydahar kick). Bulldog Turner, 21-yard interception return (Maniaci’s kick blocked). 54-0.
     Fourth quarter. Harry Clark, 44-yard run (Gary Famiglietti’s kick missed). Famiglietti, one-yard run (Maniaci, pass from Solly Sherman). Clark, one-yard run (Sherman’s pass to Maniaci failed). 73-0.
     “From the moment Bill Osmanski broke away for 68 yards and a touchdown on the third play of the game,” George Strickler wrote in the Tribune, “until little Harry Clark popped through a hole as wide as a bleacher exit for his second and the Bears’ last touchdown late in the fourth period, there was no question in the minds of the 36,034 jammed into Griffith Stadium that the colossus from the west, this day at least, was a superteam.”
     After he and Redskin coach Ray Flaherty visited the Bears’ locker room to congratulate Halas, George Preston Marshall gave his own assessment of the game. “We had the greatest crowd in Washington history, and we played our poorest game,” he told reporters. “It looked as if some of our lads had their fountain pens in their pockets trying to figure out who was going to get what share of the playoff money.”
     The victory party in Halas’s suite at the Mayflower Hotel attracted a good many senators, congressmen, and other celebrities, including Marshall himself. When he arrived late in the evening, Marshall had evidently made several previous stops on his way from the stadium. By this time, he had an easy answer for all questions about the game: “I don’t remember a thing.”
Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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