Welcome to the inaugural edition of “Games That Shaped the NFL”!
This ongoing series will look back at important games in NFL history. We will focus on games that led to important rule changes or had a significant impact on the league in some way. The goal of this series is to provide those fans who are new to the game, a look at the league’s history and hopefully give them an understanding of how certain aspects of the league came to be.
1932 NFL Playoff Game
Portsmouth Spartans at Chicago Bears
December 18th, 1932
Since the NFL’s inaugural season in 1920, the league had awarded it’s championship to the team with the best regular season winning percentage. This was not without controversy. Many championships were disputed, as teams were able to set their own schedule and there was no standard in regards to the number of games each team would play.
In 1932, the Spartans and the Bears each finished with 6 wins and 1 loss. At this time, ties were not included in the calculation of winning percentage. The league was unable to use head-to-head matchups as a tiebreaker, as both matchups between the two teams during the season ended in a tie. Reversing a previous rule that banned post-season matches, the NFL arranged a special playoff game that would determine the league champion.
In addition to being the first playoff game, this match is best remembered for the unique circumstances under which the game was played. Originally scheduled to be played at Wrigley Field (the Bears home stadium at that time), a blizzard and anticipated extremely cold temperatures forced the game to be moved indoors to Chicago Stadium.
This presented a set of problems. The field was only 80 yards long (60 between the goal lines) and 45 yards wide (10 yards narrower than was regulation at the time). This led to some unique rules being in place for the game:
- The goal posts were moved from the end lines to the goal lines
- Every time a team crossed midfield, the ball was moved back 20 yards to make up for the shortened field
- All plays were started on or between hash marks, which were 10 yards from the sidelines
- No drop kicks or field goals were allowed
A circus had been in town the previous week. This left the field covered in dirt and mulch, which led to very poor footing for the players. Combined with the small dimensions of the field, this led to the defenses dominating most of the game, with no scoring in the first three quarters.
In the fourth quarter, the Bears finally broke through on a controversial play. Quarterback Carl Brumbaugh handed the ball to Bronko Nagurski, who then threw a pass to Red Grange for a touchdown. However, the rules at the time said that a pass had to be thrown at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Spartans claimed Nagurski did not drop back five yards before the throw. However, the score stood. Moments later, the Bears would score a safety, as the Spartans fumbled the ball out of their own end zone. This would complete the scoring and the Bears would claim the championship with a 9-0 win.
This game would prove extremely impactful for several reasons. Some of the special rules from this game were made permanent for the 1933 season: the goal posts were moved from the end line to the goal line (however, this was reversed in 1974) and all plays would be started on or between the hash marks. Also, the forward pass became legal anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.
However, perhaps the biggest legacy from this match was the creation of an annual championship game. Due to the popularity of this match, for the 1933 season, the league decided to divide into two divisions, with the winners of each meeting in the NFL Championship Game. This system has since evolved into the multi-round playoff system in use today.
You can read about the current league format and structure in another article written by Joe.
Click the following link to read all about it.