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Super Bowl's Precursors Have Lively History


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Super Bowl's Precursors Have Lively History


Published: January 31, 2006

DETROIT, Jan. 30 — The program for the earliest incarnation of an N.F.L. title game included an advertisement for a Stewart-Warner movie camera. Next to a picture of the camera, were the words, "You can 'keep' this game and every game by filming each play."

If only someone had. That historic game on Dec. 18, 1932, a 9-0 victory for the Chicago Bears over the Portsmouth Spartans of Ohio, was not the Super Bowl. But it did decide the championship of the N.F.L., as will Sunday's far more lavish Super Bowl XL between the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 1932 game led to rules changes, as did other championship games that followed. These days it is fashionable to think of all pre-Super Bowl history as beginning and ending with the 1958 title game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, which the Colts won in overtime, but that is hardly the case.

Like this season's Super Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit, the 1932 playoff game was played indoors in a large Northern city with cold weather outside. But if movies of that hastily arranged game existed, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and N.F.L. Films would love to see them.

"I doubt if one was made," said Joe Horrigan, vice president for communications and exhibits at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He noted that the light would have been poor inside Chicago Stadium, making it tough to use a movie camera.

The clash between the Bears and the Spartans was added after the regular season ended with the teams tied for first place. When a snowstorm made Wrigley Field unplayable, the game was moved indoors.

A circus had just left Chicago Stadium in December 1932. Players said afterward that the stadium floor was still covered with dirt and that the scent of the elephants lingered. Bronko Nagurski, Mule Wilson and Ox Emerson did battle on a field that was widely described as being about 80 yards long.

Portsmouth unsuccessfully argued that Chicago's winning play, a touchdown pass from Nagurski to Red Grange, was illegal because Nagurski was not 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when he threw.

The rule was changed the next season, making a forward pass legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Hash marks, which were used in the playoff because the sidelines were so close to the walls, became permanent fixtures. Moreover, the idea of a championship game caught on, and one was officially scheduled for 1933.

"For the first 13 years of the league, there was no championship game," said Bob Carroll, executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association, which has 500 members. "People say, 'Why didn't they think of it?' "

Weather has not been a factor in the title game since the Super Bowl era introduced neutral sites in either warm-weather locales or domed stadiums. But snow sure affected the 1948 championship game, which the Eagles won, 7-0, over the Chicago Cardinals in a swirling snowstorm at Philadelphia's Shibe Park.

The black-and-white newsreel of that game is an unintentional masterpiece of moody contrast as a dark, oblong ball soars over wet behemoths in a slippery snow ballet. Fourteen years earlier, wintry weather had an impact on the Sneakers Game of 1934, when the Giants changed shoes in their 30-13 victory over the Bears, played on a slick field at the Polo Grounds.

Other themes recurred in the era from 1932 to 1965. Franchise migration, not just a symptom of the modern N.F.L., occurred in 1936, when the Boston Redskins moved their championship home game to a neutral site, the Polo Grounds, because of a lack of fan support.

After losing to the Green Bay Packers, 21-6, the Redskins continued moving south, to Washington. They won the title their first season there, 28-21, over the Bears. Three years later, in 1940, Chicago routed Washington, 73-0.

The 1945 game, in which the Cleveland Rams beat Washington, 15-14, resulted in more major changes for the postwar era. Cleveland's victory was aided by a safety; a pass by Washington quarterback Sammy Baugh from his end zone hit the crossbar of the goalpost, which was at the goal line at that time.

The rule was later changed, so that such an occurrence would no longer be a safety. The champion Rams moved to Los Angeles after that game, allowing the innovative Browns to take over in Cleveland in the new All-America Football Conference that formed in 1946.

Remnants of the A.A.F.C. merged with the N.F.L. in 1950, with Cleveland immediately winning the title over the Rams. The Browns then reached the title game six times in the next seven seasons. They lost once to Los Angeles, in 1951, then twice to Detroit before beating the Lions in the 1954 title game and the Rams in 1955. The Browns lost again to the Lions in 1957.

"The Browns-Lions series strikes me as important," said Horrigan, of the Hall of Fame. "It established Otto Graham and Bobby Layne." Graham was the Cleveland quarterback; Layne was Detroit's quarterback.

"They were such a contrast in style and personality," Horrigan said. "Otto was a skilled, polished player. Layne was a field general and a swaggering Texan. Their rivalry added a mystique and helped the growth of a league still finding its feet."

The Browns were pioneers in football tactics. Films of the 1953 championship at Briggs Stadium in Detroit show guard Chuck Noll, who later coached the Steelers, who shuttled in and out to relay plays to the huddle from Browns Coach Paul Brown.

The 1958 overtime game at Yankee Stadium seemed to accelerate the national consciousness about the sport, but there were two little-remembered quirks about it, according to Michael MacCambridge, the author of "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation."

"That epic contest was not sold out," he said. "There were unsold seats in Yankee Stadium." Ernie Accorsi, the current general manager of the Giants, said he had heard that tickets were available that morning but sold out before kickoff. A crowd of 64,185 was announced.

Until then, Accorsi said, the pro title game was relatively less important. "It wasn't the World Series," he said. "It wasn't the Rose Bowl, either."

Although many fans remember seeing Alan Ameche score the Colts' winning touchdown on television in 1958, few recall that NBC lost the picture for two of the last four plays, MacCambridge said.

They might not have seen the finish if an NBC employee had not run on the field to delay play while technicians looked for an unplugged cable. In the next few years, television became tightly connected to football. The birth of the American Football League led to the first Super Bowl — shown on two networks — in the 1966 season and that year's merger agreement between the two leagues.

For Sunday's 40th Super Bowl, dozens of cameras will document the players' movements. But what if officials had moving-picture review in 1932 to replay that controversial touchdown pass from Nagurski to Grange?

Perhaps, someday the evidence will turn up in a yard sale or in the attic of an old house. Coaches often say in football that you don't really know what happened until you've seen the film.

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