Golden anniversary: the 1958 title game

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 25, 2008



(Ed. note: See our companion piece on the 1958 NFL championship game, a review we published earlier this year of the Mark Bowden book, "The Best Game Ever.")
 
Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the "Greatest Game Ever Played," the 1958 NFL championship game in which the Colts topped the Giants, 23-17, at Yankee Stadium.
 
As most football fans know, it was the first overtime game in league history and marked the emergence of pro football as a force in American culture. It was also the most-watched football game in history at the time.
 
Pro football researcher and occasional CHFF contributor Coach T.J. Troup recently watched tapes of the game and chimed in with his thoughts on this defining NFL battle. He has some real interesting insights, statistical and otherwise.
 
(By the way, the NFL Network broadcasts the game at 2:30 p.m. ET Friday.)  
 
Lombardi-Landry swan song
The 1958 title game was Vince Lombardi's last as offensive coordinator of the Giants, before he left to take over the head coaching job in Green Bay, and his last year paired with Giants defense coordinator Tom Landry, who left to take over the Cowboys a year later.
 
The two joined the Giants staff in 1954 (Landry as player-coach) under new head coach Jim Lee Howell. They had an immediate impact on the team's fortunes, said Troup.
 
The Giants were probably the worst statistical team in football in 1953, when they ranked 12th in scoring offense, 11th in total offense, 9th in scoring defense and 8th in total defense (among 12 teams).
 
The following year, with Lombardi and Landry as coordinators, they ranked 6th in scoring offense, 6th in total offense, 2nd in scoring defense and 3rd in total defense. They remained statistical leaders, and consistent winners, throughout the Lombardi-Landry Era, appearing in three championship games from 1956 to 1959, while winning in 1956.
 
Stifling pass defense
It's something of a Cold, Hard Football Facts constant that great teams are built upon an ability to pass the ball well on offense and stop the pass on defense.
 
The 1958 season was no different, as the Colts ranked No. 1 with a Defensive Passer Rating of 35.1 and the Giants ranked No. 2 (and tops in the Eastern Conference) with a Defensive Passer Rating of 52.3. The suffocating nature of Baltimore's pass defense in 1958 is literally unheard of in this day and age when the team with the top pass defense of 2008, the Ravens, have a Defensive Passer Rating of 61.1.
 
But even better pass offenses
Despite the strength of each team's pass defense, Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas and New York quarterback Charlie Conerly had career days throwing the ball in the 1958 title tilt.  
 
Unitas's performance is well documented, as he led a critical game-tying drive at the end of regulation and the game-winning drive in overtime. For the day, he completed 26 of 40 passes (65%) for 349 yards, 8.7 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT and a 90.5 passer rating.
 
Charlie Conerly, meanwhile, did not pass the ball nearly as often against Baltimore's top-ranked pass defense, but  he shredded it when he did, completing 10 of 14 passes (71.4%) for 187 yards, 13.4 YPA, 1 TD, 0 INT and a 137.5 passer rating.
 
On a day in which fumbles by the Giants were a major problem, especially Frank Gifford's gaffes (two lost fumbles that led to two Baltimore scores), maybe New York would have fared better if they had passed the ball more often.
 
Two-way Hall of Famer
The two-platoon era was not even a decade old in 1958, so it was not unusual for a number of players to spend a little time on both sides of the ball.
 
Roosevelt Brown was one of those players. A Hall of Fame offensive tackle for the Giants, defensive coordinator Tom Landry put the hulking-for-his time (255 pounds) lineman in on defense in short-yardage situations.
 
Unitas had a simple way to counter Brown's defensive presence: "Unitas called running players away from him," said Troup.
 
The Landry-Unitas chess game
The battle between Landry and Unitas was one of the great subplots of the 1958 title game. Landry, of course, is probably the greatest defensive innovator in pro football history, creating (among other tactics) the 4-3 defense for his Giants that's still employed by most NFL teams today. Unitas, meanwhile, brought game-day prep to a new level with battery-mate Raymond Berry.
 
Landry did everything in his power to stop Unitas on this day. In fact, when it became apparent that the Colts offense would attack through the air, Landry repeatedly put five defensive backs on the field, and played a lot of zone coverage that was rare in that era.
 
"It was most likely first time in playoff history that a team used the 'nickle' defense other than in the last few plays of  a game," said Troup.
 
Landry attempted to double-up receiver Berry with linebacker Harland Svare (later San Diego's head coach in the 1970s). It was a maneuver Berry and Unitas countered and exploited thanks to pain-staking preparation over the years, which was well chronicled by Mark Bowden in "The Best Game Ever." With no verbal communication, Unitas knew that Berry would split the rare double-team by faking outside and then driving into the area that Svare had vacated.
 
Unitas, meanwhile, brought Berry in close in a double tight-end alignment at one critical point in the game, which  caused Landry's secondary to roll its coverage toward Lenny Moore (the dual-threat runner and receiver), who was flanked out to right as the lone wide receiver.
 
Berry delayed at the line as if blocking, and then split the secondary for a TD catch that gave the Colts a 14-3 lead.
 
The Colts displayed the same formation in overtime, and middle linebacker Sam Huff cheated to his right to prevent Berry from slicing through the defense again. Instead, Unitas ran a draw play to Alan Ameche, right at the spot vacated by Huff, for a big gain that set up Ameche's winning TD a few plays later.
 
"Johnny Hightop's ability to deploy his arsenal of offensive weapons was key," said Troup. "He was one step ahead of Landry and Huff. Those proud men were very successful in limiting opponents, but on this day no one but no one could stop Johnny Hightops!"
 
The legacy of the 1958 title game
The impact of the 1958 championship game on the future of pro football is well documented. It dramatically boosted the popularity of the NFL and, perhaps most notably, it prompted a bunch of businessmen to start a rival league called the AFL.
 
But the game also had a profound impact on the big rivalry of the 1960s: Colts-Packers.
 
In his final game before taking over the Packers job, Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi was part of a team victimized by Unitas, Berry and a Baltimore offense that had proven the power of great preparation. It was superior preparation and execution, after all, that allowed the Colts to exploit the Giants in key situations and, ultimatley, to win the game.
 
Lombardi had learned his lesson.
 
When he went to Green Bay, Lombardi made sure that he and Packers defensive coordinator Phil Bengston never underestimated Unitas. Preparation and execution, meanwhile, became hallmarks of the Green Bay dynasty of the 1960s.
 
It paid great dividends, as the Packers dominated Unitas and the Colts throughout the 1960s, winning 11 of 16 meetings from 1960 to 1967, and 9 of 11 from 1962 to 1966. Interestingly, the Colts were involved in the second overtime game in NFL history, too. The Packers topped the Unitas-less Colts, 13-10, in a rare conference tie-breaker playoff game in 1965.
 
The Colts had a head start in the race to become the team of the decade in the 1960s. After all, they won NFL championships in 1958 annd 1959.
 
Instead, Unitas and the Colts would not win another title until 1970. Lombardi was not only out of football by then. He had died just before the start of the season.

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