GORDON WHITE: Reflection On Overtime Rules and the 'Greatest Game Ever Played'
During each of the first nine National Football League championship games, 1933--1941, there was no way to decide the championship if the game ended in a tie. Possibly the teams were expected to share the NFL crown.
But the closest thing to a tie was the very first NFL title game in 1933 when the Chicago Bears, champions of the Western Division, beat the New York Giants from the Eastern Division, 23-21. The farthest thing from a tie came in 1940 when Sid Luckman and the Bears trounced Sammy Baugh and his Washington Redskins, 73-0.
The following December, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers finished their regular season on The Day of Infamy, Dec. 7, 1941, tied for the Western Division title. There had never before been a deadlock for a division crown.
So Green Bay and Chicago met in a Western Division playoff, Sunday, Dec. 14, 1941, to decide which team would play the Eastern Champions, the New York Giants, a week later in the NFL Championship game. Prior to this first division playoff game in league history, someone wondered, "What happens if they tie? Both teams can't play the Giants next week."
Thus George Halas, owner/coach of the Bears, and Curley Lambeau, coach of the Packers, agreed prior to their playoff game that in the case of a tie the two teams would play a sudden-death overtime to settle the issue.
The Bears won the division playoff handily, 33-14, in the regulation 60 minutes and went on to beat the Giants the next week in similar fashion, 37-9, for the 1941 NFL championship.
The Halas-Lambeau overtime agreement before their division playoff was so obviously necessary to decide championship games that a month later on January 24, 1942, during their annual league meeting, the 10 NFL team owners adopted a sudden-death playoff rule to decide division playoff games and the NFL championship game. They did not establish overtime for regular season games at that time but did so many years later.
It was not until 17 years after Halas and Lambeau came up with the idea that the NFL overtime rule was first needed to resolve an NFL championship.
When put into play, the necessary overtime resulted in the dramatic conclusion to one of the most memorable games in American football history---the NFL title game played in Yankee Stadium 50 years ago today when the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants, 23-17, in an extra period.
Led by Johnny Unitas at quarterback, the Colts rallied in the final seconds of the fourth quarter to tie the New York Giants, 17-17. Then, in the first NFL overtime period in history, Unitas took his team 80 yards in 13 plays for the victory. The Colts' fullback, Alan Ameche, scored from the 1-yard line for the winning touchdown.
It is doubtful that many of the 64,185 fans walking out of Yankee Stadium late that Sunday afternoon thought they had just witnessed "The Greatest Game Ever Played" in football history.
Yet that contest got tagged with the label of "The Greatest Game Ever Played" years after it was played.
Surely it was an historic event and everyone knew that. Overtime was something new to football.
I certainly did not feel that I had covered "The Greatest Game Ever Played," Dec. 28, 1958.
It was an exciting game, a seesaw, hard-hitting struggle pitting that season's best offense in football (Colts) against that season's best defense (Giants). Some of the finest athletes in NFL history took part, and six players from each team have since been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
All of us in Yankee Stadium that cold and dank winter day plus about 45 million television viewers knew they saw something historic, something exciting but a game that was mistake-prone and a game that might have been played a bit better by both sides.
There were seven turnovers. The Giants lost four fumbles, the Colts lost two and the Giants intercepted one Johnny Unitas pass at a crucial point in the game. Frank Gifford, the Giants' star halfback, lost three fumbles to the Colts. Two led directly to Baltimore touchdowns.
Jim Mutscheller, the Colts' tight end in 1958, chuckled during a recent ESPN telecast of that game and said, "They say it was 'The Greatest Game Ever Played.' It was really kind of a sloppy game."
The teams gave their best under some poor and deteriorating conditions on a partly frozen, dusty and grassless gridiron. Players lost control of the ball at times because of the cold weather.
After leading, 3-0, the Giants fell behind, 14-3, at the half. Gifford's first two fumbles came in the second quarter and each one set up the Colts for a touchdown.
Gifford was just not having a great day to that point although he atoned for some of his errors when he scored the Giants' second and final touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 15-yard pass from Charley Conerly.
In the third quarter the Giants completed the most exciting play of the game. It was an 86-yard pass play that started when Charlie Conerly threw to Kyle Rote. When Rote was hit and broke a tackle at about midfield he fumbled the ball. But the Giants' fullback, Alex Webster, running down field as convoy for Rote, picked up the loose ball and ran to the Colts' 1 yard line. From there, Mel Triplett went in for a touchdown, cutting the Colts' lead to 14-10.
After Gifford's touchdown, it appeared as if the Giants would salvage the championship because time became a problem for the Colts. But with just over two minutes remaining, Baltimore began a drive from way back on its own 14. Unitas took his team to the Giants' 13 so that even the rather mediocre place kicker, Steve Myra, could not miss his field goal placement from 20 yards. The goal posts were on the goal line in those days.
Myra made it with three seconds to go in the regulation 60 minutes, tying the game and forcing the first overtime in NFL history.
The Giants won the overtime coin toss and received the kickoff. But they went three downs and out and had to punt into the Colts' end zone.
Thus, from their own 20, the Colts went to the Giants' 1-yard line in 13 plays. Unitas passed to Raymond Berry three times. Lenny Moore and Alan Ameche ran the ball for good yardage. The Giants' defense was tired and forced to give ground.
From the Giants' 1, Ameche had one of the easiest yard-long touchdown scampers in NFL history as Lenny Moore and others blocked to open a gigantic hole in the Giants' line. Ameche simply stepped through the wide open space to win the game. The Giants were a beaten team.
As the years passed, some sports historians and NFL publicists decided this championship of 1958 was "The Greatest Game Ever Played."
For one thing, it was the first NFL title game to be nationally televised to as many as 45 million persons. But more than 45 million people could have seen the game if it had not been for the NFL blackout restriction that did not permit telecasts in the home city of a game if the arena did not sell out. Yankee Stadium was not sold out that day so New York City did not receive the telecast. That probably cost NBC at least 2 to 3 million viewers.
The failure to fill Yankee Stadium tells a lot about what sports fans thought of NFL games half a century ago. College football and major league baseball were still far ahead of the NFL as attractions in those days.
But despite that blackout rule, the biggest NFL television audience to that point, led to a growing interest in the league's games because of the nature of that championship contest with the unusual overtime period. Word got around quickly that the NFL had as good a product as college football.
Also, some wealthy men watching this game around the country, led by Lamar Hunt of Texas, believed that this pro football thing might sell in a lot more cities than just the dozen cities of the 1958 NFL.
Two years later these millionaires formed the American Football League, a group of pro teams that gave the NFL its most serious competition in history. They grabbed off a lot of college players. The two leagues agreed in 1966 to meet in a Super Bowl game for the championship of pro football. The first four Super Bowls were title games between the champions of the AFL and NFL.
Then the two leagues merged in 1970 and formed the National Football League we know today with the National and American Conferences. The conference champions meet in the Super Bowl each year.
Many people feel these developments in pro football over the last half century that made the NFL the huge sports attraction it is today came about because that 1958 championship game with its overtime put the NFL front and center in this nation's sports scene. That, more than the game itself, is why the 1958 championship earned the title of "The Greatest Game Ever Played."
Like football fans across the country, I have seen better games.
For example, who can forget so quickly last February's Super Bowl XLII when Eli Manning threw the winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 second to go to beat the previously undefeated and highly favored New England Patriots, 17-14. This was one of the biggest and most exciting upsets in NFL history and did not have nearly as many mistakes as the 1958 championship game.
There are hundreds of other "great" football games. College football and pro football have had their share of these thrillers called "great" games. Take your pick.
Frank Gifford co-authored a book with Peter Richmond titled "The Glory Game." It is one of three recent books about the 1958 NFL Championship. The other two are "Giants Among Men" by Jack Cavanaugh and "The Best Game Ever" by Mark Bowden. I prefer Cavanaugh's book, which involves considerable history of the Giants half a century ago when I covered many NFL games.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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