THE SPIRIT WAS WILLING
Man for man, the Philadelphia Eagles are boys. With a defense that three Sam Huffs couldn't cure and a running game that was out of town when it was time for the last 5,000-mile check, the Eagles have no business occupying the same stadium with the New York Giants, to select a name not entirely at random. Of all the things a team must do well to win in the National Football League, the Eagles manage only one: the pass. It hardly seems enough.
Yet last Sunday, while 60,000 hysterical Philadelphians kept themselves warm by pounding each other on top of the head, the Eagles frightened the Giants half to death, playing them down to the last second of as exciting a football game as ancient Franklin Field has contained in years. The Eagles went down, and on the way they probably lost the NFL championship. But they went down like champions should, losing only 28-24 and scoring more points against the magnificent New York defense than any team has been able to score this year.
Now the Giants can lock up their third Eastern Conference title in four years with a victory over the Browns this weekend.
December 18, 1961
Actually, the Giants were never in danger of losing, they kept telling themselves. Fifty seconds deep in the third quarter, they had a 21-10 lead. Then the Eagles scored. The Giants had a 28-17 lead with three minutes left in the game—and the Eagles scored again. At the end the Eagles were threatening to score once more. They just ran out of time.
Philadelphia is a team that seems to have been running out of time all year, with only a fierce sense of pride, the excellent coaching of a virtually unknown staff and that sensational passing attack to keep it alive. "We're not a sound ball club," said Nick Skorich, the head unknown, before the game on Sunday. "Sometimes it really shows. When we lose, we lose big." In mid-November, leading the league with a 7-1 record, the Eagles lost twice in succession, 38-21 to the Giants and 45-24 to the Browns. "We were the defending champions," said Skorich. "Then, when we lost those two games we were really kissed off. The guys got mad and they climbed back on top again. There's a hell of a spirit on this ball club."
It is well that the spirit is there, for the flesh doesn't look like it could beat Over-brook High. On the defensive club, only three could play for the Giants: Chuck Bednarik, now 36 but still Bednarik and therefore superior as a middle linebacker to New York's Tom Scott; Leo Sugar, a fine left end who might have replaced Jim Katcavage if he had gotten there first; and Tom Brookshier at left halfback. Brookshier is good enough to play for anyone except that Brookshier has had a broken leg for a month and can't even play for the Eagles.
In Clarence Peaks, Billy Barnes, Ted Dean and Tim Brown, Philadelphia is blessed with four of the better running backs in the NFL and also four of the most frustrated, since the Eagle line hasn't opened a decent hole in years. This places a staggering responsibility upon the passing game, on red-haired Christian Adolph Jurgensen, playing his first season as No. 1 quarterback, and on the three receivers, Tommy McDonald, Pete Retzlaff and Bobby Walston. Jurgensen has been sensational, leading the league in completions and yardage and touchdown passes while threatening a handful of NFL records held by men with names like Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Johnny Unitas, Bobby Layne and Norm Van Brocklin, the man Jurgensen rendered obsolete.
Still, for all his great arm, Sonny Jurgensen is 47 years younger and 24 years less experienced than Y. A. Tittle and Charlie Conerly, the quarterbacks he had to outperform on Sunday. As for the receivers, their edge over Del Shofner, Kyle Rote and Joe Walton of the Giants is a thin one. The Eagles, particularly McDonald, run better when they catch the ball but the passing and catching are little enough with which to challenge a team that can score like blazes and has the brute defense to back up its offense.
Naturally, the Eagle coaches were concerned, and in the long week before the game, in the overheated dressing rooms under Franklin Field and out on the freezing, windswept practice field down by the Schuylkill, they wrestled with one basic problem: how to help Jurgensen get the ball to McDonald, Retzlaff and Walston more often than Tittle or Conerly could get the ball to Rote, Shofner and Walton. To accomplish the first, they decided to open up the Eagle offense with a strange-looking spread formation that they called the stacked deck. "We send Retzlaff out wide to the left," explained Charlie Gauer, who shares the offensive coaching duties with Skorich, "then we send three others wide to the right and stack them up one behind the other: McDonald, Walston and Brown. Or we stack to the left, with Retzlaff, Walston and Brown. When the ball is snapped, they scatter. If the Giants shift another linebacker out there to help cover, we have a couple of running plays that might go with Peaks up the middle.
"Anyway," said Gauer, "it might give the Giants something to think about." Since the Eagles always manage to score, the Eagles were more concerned with slowing down the Giants. "Naturally we have to stop their running game," said Jerry Williams, who handles the defense. "If we can't stop Webster on those cutbacks, we're dead. But our main problem is stopping Del Shofner."
To stop Shofner, the tall, blond sprinter who wrecked the Eagles a month before, the Eagles would normally assign Brookshier to stick to his back like a burr. With Brookshier gone, and a rookie named Irv Cross at his position, the problem was far more complicated. "Cross has come along wonderfully," said Williams, "but he's going to need help. What we plan to do is rotate the secondary completely to cover Shofner. The linebacker, Maxie Baughan, will try to hold Shofner up at the line; then Cross will protect against the flat and the down-and-out. If Shofner goes deep, the safety man on that side, Freeman or Burroughs, will help out. If the Giants begin to hurt us with Rote or Walton, we'll have to try something else. But Shofner is the man we're afraid of."
As prophets, the Eagle coaches were superb. Shofner caught only four passes all day—but three went for touchdowns. The fourth Giant touchdown was scored by Walton on a pass while the Eagle secondary was concentrating on Shofner. Even the best plans go astray.
The Giants scored on their fourth offensive play, from the Eagle 41. Tittle faked Alex Webster into the left side and the Eagle defense came up much too quickly. Before Don Burroughs could recover, Shofner was behind him, and Tittle's pass settled into the tall end's hands on the 15, from where he breezed across. It was pitifully easy. Pat Summerall kicked the first of his four extra points.
After a Philadelphia field goal made the score 7-3, the Eagles pulled their stacked deck. From the Eagle 48, Retzlaff, Walston and Brown went wide to the left. Jurgensen gazed in their direction, then threw to McDonald, who had gone downfield and cut across the middle, gaining a stride on the defender, Erich Barnes. McDonald took the pass, ran past Jimmy Patton, who was coming up to help out, raced past Dick Lynch and scored. Walston's kick made it 10-7 and Philadelphia went wild.
Although they recovered two more Giant fumbles, the Eagles were unable to score again in the first half. But the Giant offense, which had been able to do nothing with the Eagle secondary after that opening touchdown, came up with a solution. Coach Allie Sherman, noticing that the Eagles were covering Shofner with two and even three men, sent in Charlie Conerly to run them off the field. Conerly has played very little for the Giants this year, but he has a great deal of experience at handling unusual situations and he handled this one well. He ran Webster off tackle to force Baughan back into position; then, with only Cross and Burroughs left to cover Shofner, he sent Shofner deep from the 35—and threw to Walton, crossing over. Walton caught the ball at the 15 and ran untouched into the end zone.
The Giants picked right up in the second half and on the second play scored again. Conerly faked Webster into the line once more, then shot the ball to Shofner, slanting across from his split left-end position toward the center of the field. Burroughs made the tackle too late and Shofner fell across the goal. The score was now 21-10.
With Andy Robustelli turning Jurgensen into his personal tackling dummy, the Eagles could get nowhere until midway of the fourth quarter. Then they began to roll. They had a touchdown pass from Jurgensen to Brown called back because of a pushing penalty, but on the next series of downs Jurgensen sent a bullet into McDonald's hands on the right sideline and the little genius wiggled past Barnes, past Patton and into the end zone for a touchdown that covered 30 yards. When Walston kicked, the Giants led only 21-17 and there were still 7½ minutes left.
It was then that the crusher fell. The Giants, held and forced to kick from their 24, got a first down when Sugar and John Nocera, rushing together in an attempt to block Don Chandler's punt, bumped the kicker. From the 39 the Giants marched to the clinching touchdown. With 2:40 left and the score 28-17, the Eagles were dead.
A very lively corpse
Only the Eagles didn't know it. Dean returned the kickoff to the 25 and Jurgensen ran 15 when he couldn't find a receiver. Then he faded back and, for once during the long afternoon, received all the pass protection he needed. Jurgensen threw far down the left side and there, as if by a miracle, was Retzlaff, alone. While Lynch frantically tried to get back into the play, Retzlaff took the pass and raced in to score. Now it was 28-24, and there was 1:50 left.
The Eagles didn't get the ball until the clock showed 14 seconds. On the last play Jurgensen passed to Retzlaff who lateraled to McDonald who ran 29 yards before he was bounced out of bounds. The game was over. Jurgensen had completed 16 of 31 passes for 367 yards, bringing his season total to 3,320 yards and breaking Unitas' record; McDonald had caught seven passes for 237 yards. But up there on the scoreboard the Giants had won. The Eagles cried some, as even grown men sometimes will, and Skorich said that they played too well to have lost. Gauer said that the stacked deck would have worked better if only the Giant linebackers and Robustelli had remained off Jurgensen's neck and Williams said that the special pass defense contained Shofner awfully well, except for three plays.
As for the Giants, they didn't have too much to say. They were the better ball club and they knew it and were happy to have proved it on Sunday. "But those Eagles," said Sherman. "They sure do scare you, don't they?"