Packers-Bears and the NFL's first playoff game
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 17, 2011
(Ed. Note: this piece originally ran on January 18, 2011, days before the Packers-Bears 2010 NFC title game.)
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts history buff (and ladies, we do mean buff)
The Bears and Packers first battled in 1921, and have met at least twice each year since 1925, in the most frequently played rivalry in the NFL (Chicago holds the advantage, 92-83-6).
Green Bay has won 12 NFL championships (now 13 after Super Bowl XLV), the most of any franchise; Chicago is second on the list, with nine. The Bears boast 26 Hall of Famers, the most of any organization; the Packers are second, with 21 enshrinees in Canton.
Yet these two bedrock NFL franchises meet Sunday in the postseason for just the second time in their otherwise storied histories. It's the first time in 90 years that the old rivals will meet with a league or conference title on the line.
The first and only postseason meeting came at the end of the 1941 campaign. The Bears and Packers dominated the NFL that year, and finished tied atop the Western Division with league-best 10-1 records, after splitting the regular-season series.
The Bears won at Green Bay in September, 25-17, behind a 13-yard touchdown run and 63-yard touchdown pass by Hall of Famer George McAfee (pictured, No. 5). It was Chicago's first game of the season. Curiously, by comparison with today's strict scheduling, Curly Lambeau's Packers already boasted wins over the Lions and Cleveland Rams.
Five weeks later, the Packers held off a two-touchdown fourth-quarter rally in Chicago to hand the Bears their only loss of the year, 16-14.
So the 10-1 rivals were forced into a rare tie-breaker playoff game for the right to face the Eastern Division champ Giants in the NFL title tilt. It was not just the first and only playoff game in Packers-Bears history, it was the first playoff game, period. The NFL introduced a championship game pitting the regular-season champs from its Eastern and Western Divisions in 1933. The 1941 Packers-Bears game was the first time that two teams had to "play off" for the right to fight for the NFL title.
The Bears dominated the rubber match, 33-14, at Wrigley Field. They then dominated the Giants, 37-9, in the championship game, four days before Christmas.
The Packers-Bears playoff game of Dec. 14, 1941 comes with another historic footnote: it was the first game played after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Many of the men who squared off in that lone Packers-Bears playoff contest 70 years ago enlisted in the service right after the game. Among them was Bears coach George Halas. A World War I veteran, he re-enlisted in the Navy in World War II and served three years in the South Pacific (according to BearsHistory.com). Halas, though, did coach Chicago for the first half of the 1942 season before shipping out.
Imagine that: besides being one of the great coaches in the history of pro football, and arguably the single most important individual in NFL history, Halas served in two world wars. The accomplishments of the likes of contemporary NFL giants like Bill Belichick or Jerry Jones seem so paltry by comparison, don't they? By the way, Halas was the MVP of the 1919 Rose Bowl and played right field for the Yankees later that year. He helped create the NFL in 1920. What a life.
Halas was still coaching in the 1960s. But some of those Packers and Bears who squared off on December 14 never played football again.
Green Bay guard Howad "Smiley" Johnson, for example, traded in his leather Packers helmet for a steel Marine Corps helmet in the days after the loss to Chicago. He was cited for bravery on both Saipan and Iwo Jima. But that second honor came at the cost of his own life: Johnson was killed on the very first day of the battle for Iwo Jima (Feb. 19, 1945). He remains the only player in Packers history who gave his life in service of the country and is honored today at the Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field.
One of the Giants who was beaten by Halas's Bears in the 1941 NFL championship game on December 21 was a rookie lineman named Jack Lummus. He left the Giants after the loss to serve in the Marine Corps, too. Lummus, like Johnson, was killed on Iwo Jima, but only after leading an attack on an entrenched Japanese position, despite suffering multiple wounds. He remains one of two NFL players to receive the Medal of Honor, and the only one honored (like most MoH recipients) posthumously.
Bringing it back to football, the NFL, like much of American culture, was never quite the same after the war. The postwar boom in American global dominance was met with a postwar scoring boom on the fields of the NFL unlike any before or since.
The average NFL game in 1940 produced just 30.2 points. By 1948 that number had skyrocketed to an average of 46.48 points per game. Believe it or not, 1948 remains the highest-scoring season in NFL history. The average NFL game in 2010, for the sake of comparison, produced 44.07 points (the most since 1965).
The post-war scoring boom was due largely to the T formation that was pioneered in the NFL by Halas and his quarterback, Sid Luckman. Amazingly, Luckman is still the leading passer in Bears history (14,686 yards), while his average of 8.42 yards per pass attempt remains the second highest mark of any qualifying passer, 60 years after he last strapped on his leather helmet. So the 1940s were a revolutionary time in the development of pro football.
The sudden proliferation of points sparked a proliferation of the league's popularity beyond the dusty rough-and-tumble Midwestern factory-field football dominated by the likes of Halas's Bears and Lambeau's Packers. The sport began to spread its wings in 1946, the year after the war ended, when the Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles. They quickly became the NFL's first glamour team and made headlines from coast to coast.
Rams Hall of Fame quarterback and L.A. native Bob Waterfield, for example, was married to famously buxom movie star Jane Russell. And on the field, he split duties under center with another Hall of Fame QB, Norm Van Brocklin.
Their electrifying 1950 Rams still hold the NFL record for scoring in a season (38.8 PPG). Mike Carlson, a sometime CHFF contributor who covers the NFL in the U.K. for the BBC, wrote a great history of those glittery Tinsletown Rams a few years ago.
Football, so long a brute working man's game, was suddenly sexy. And the rest of the American sports world took notice. Baseball's Dodgers and Giants, for example, moved from New York City to California in 1958, 12 years after the Rams.
To put it all another way: pro football was spreading far away from its old Chicago-Green Bay axis. And the NFL was surpassing baseball as a driving cultural force in the nation.
Halas, Luckman and the Bears ruled the 1940s. And the Packers would later dominate the 1960s. But the two organizations have never quite recaptured the dominance they displayed up through the war years: Chicago and Green Bay combined to win 12 of 18 NFL championships from 1929 to 1946. Halas won the last of his six titles in 1963, while the Packers added five championships in the 1960s, including wins in the first two Super Bowls. But the once-dominant Bears and Packers have combined to win just two of the past 42 Super Bowls (now three of the past 43).
You could argue, then, that the 1941 Packers-Bears playoff game represents the greatest moment in the 90-year history of the rivalry. They had been playing each other for two decades by that point, plenty of time to develop animosity, they were easily the two most dominant teams in football, at the dawn of the NFL's most important evolutionary decade, and found competition that year only from each other.
The 1941 Bears outscored their opponents an incredible 396-147 (36.0 PPG to 13.4 PPG), the best margin in the league. The Packers outscored their opponents 258-120 (23.5 PPG to 10.9 PPG), the second best margin in the league. And, of course, their only losses came at the hands of each other.
The Bears and Packers, by the way, also dominated one other very important indicator – an indicator that you can predict with great accuracy that they dominated if you study your Cold, Hard Football Facts (see the recent article, "Top Guns: a brief history of NFL air superiority").
The Bears and Packers were easily the two most dominant passing teams in football during that pivotal 1941 season, with mind-blowing numbers by today's standards.
Halas and his champion Bears (pictured) were +65.0 in Passer Rating Differential (95.2 to 30.2); Green Bay was +40.2 (75.4 to 35.2).
Fast forward to the 2010 season: Green Bay is No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential (+31.7). Keep in mind that we introduced Passer Rating Differential in 2009 as a way to prove the importance of winning the war of passing efficiency on both sides of the ball. New Orleans topped the indicator in 2009, and then topped the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
It turns out the 1941 Bears dominated the indicator and won a championship, too. As we noted last week, winning the battle of air superiority has always been the key to success in the NFL, at least since the dawn of the T formation. The 2010 Bears, meanwhile, are a mere 11th in Passer Rating Differential (+5.1).
Given the fact that Green Bay has dominated the passing wars this year, it sounds like we'll pick the Packers to gain some revenge on Sunday for that loss back on December 14, 1941, during the NFL's very first playoff game.
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