A DEFENSIVE WALL OF ICE ON AN ICY FIELD
In the gelid confines of Wrigley Field, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants and won the championship of the National Football League with an absolute minimum of offensive effort. As they have done so many times this year—11 before this icy afternoon—the Bears defeated a good team purely on defensive brio. They gained only 93 yards through the Giant line, and Bill Wade, a tall, cranelike quarterback who has been criticized all year for the ultra conservatism of his attack, completed only 10 of 28 passes for a mere 129 yards.
But the few yards the Bears gained were accumulated at the proper times—after interceptions had set up scoring opportunities—and they provided the Chicago team with a 14-10 victory. Fittingly enough, after the game the Bear squad presented the game ball to George Allen, its young and brilliant defensive coach. The remarkably alert and often devastating Bear defense completely stifled the passes of Yelberton Abraham Tittle: more than that, the Bear defense was the team's best offense. Five times Bear defenders picked off Tittle passes, and the two interceptions that set up the Chicago touchdowns came on the play for which Tittle is known best and the pass he throws most deftly—the screen pass.
The Bears scored their first touchdown after Chicago Linebacker Larry Morris intercepted a screen pass intended for Phil King and returned it down the sideline 61 yards to the New York five-yard line. This interception was not truly Tittle's fault: King had flattened out his pass route too much, giving the corner linebacker the opportunity to play him closer than usual.
The second Bear touchdown followed an interception of another screen pass by Ed O'Bradovich. The Bears, who spent the two weeks of preparation for this game in an intensive study of Giant movies, had been well prepared to negate the screen. They varied the responsibility for the screen pass: when a linebacker rushed, an end or a tackle would drop off into the area of the screen pass with a primary assignment of looking for the little, looping pass that Tittle throws so well.
"We were taught to read screen when Tittle set up, then dropped back another two or three yards," O'Bradovich said. "On the pass I intercepted I was coming in hard, and Jack Stroud was blocking me. Stroud released much more quickly than he normally does, and I looked for Tittle to see if he had backed off from where he usually throws and he had, so I left Stroud and went out looking for the screen pass. He threw it, and I lifted my right arm and hit the ball, and it came down where I could catch it. Tittle acted real well, but he acted just the way we know he acts when he's going to throw the screen."
The real key to the Bear victory was this kind of meticulous preparation against the Giant offense. Allen used a five-man line often—almost 90% of the time, in fact. The Bears have used this defense off and on all season, but their use of it in almost all situations on this afternoon came as something of a surprise to the Giants and destroyed the precision of the blocking. More important, the five-man line gave the Bears a very strong rush on Tittle.
The Bear line seldom threw Tittle for a loss, but they got to him hard as he threw the ball, and the battering he took finally told. He was hurt in the first quarter when he threw a 14-yard pass to Gifford for a touchdown a split second before he was hit by Larry Morris, who had blitzed from his corner linebacker spot. As Tittle left the field after that play, he felt a slight twinge in his left knee, and when he reached the sideline he told Coach Allie Sherman that he had hurt the knee.
"I'll walk around on it for a while and see how it feels," he said. "I think it will be all right."
It was all right until late in the second quarter. With a little more than six minutes to play in the half and the Giants driving, Tittle dropped back to pass, stumbled on the hard turf and fell just as he released the ball. Morris, coming in hard, fell on the Giant quarterback and hit his bad knee again, and Tittle felt a snap. He was barely able to get off the field this time.
He played no more in the first half, and it was only because he insisted that he was allowed to play in the second half. But the bad left leg proved an insurmountable handicap to him and to the Giants. He could not retreat to his passing position as quickly as usual, and the Bears, seeing this, blitzed more in the second half, forcing him to hurry his passes. Even when he got back quickly enough and was protected, his passes were inaccurate, because he was throwing off his right leg alone instead of stepping into the pass as a quarterback should.
"He was great on one leg," Sherman said after the game. "I want to make one thing clear. All the writers who had said that Y. A. Tittle does not win the big game don't understand football and don't understand this great athlete, who is the only man around who could have played in the second half with a leg like that. He has won more big games than any quarterback. I know, because for three years we have been in more big games than any other team."
Tittle's injury was only one of the misfortunes that bedeviled the Giants in this game. They lost Tom Scott, who broke his arm in the first quarter, and in the second quarter Phil King was out with a sprained ankle. Bookie Bolin, whose strong blocking had contributed to a surprisingly authoritative running game in the first half, was injured and replaced by a virtual rookie, Ken Byers.
So the Giants had to play for the championship without the full-time help of four of their first-line players. It is remarkable that they stayed as close to the Bears as they did.
"I'm not alibiing because of the injuries," Sherman said after the game. "Any writer who says I am is misquoting me. We lost to a Chicago team which played the game it had to play. The injuries did not make the difference.
"We run better than most people give us credit for," Sherman added in the course of this oddly defensive interview. Indeed, the Giants did run well during the first half, sending Morrison and King (while he was healthy) and Webster over the Bear tackles for good gains time and again. Fred Williams, the Bear tackle, was the victim on most of these runs as Greg Larson, the Giant center, blocked him in time and again to open cracks in the Bear line.
In the second half Williams moved a little wider so that it was impossible for Larson to reach him; and this small adjustment cut off the inside route that Tittle had exploited in the first half.
The Giants had never been able to run wide against the two strong Bear ends and against two of the best corner linebackers in football—Larry Morris and Joe Fortunate. In the second half, with the middle closed, the flanks impregnable and Tittle unable to throw competently, the Giant offense was reduced to almost a zero. They had gained 70 yards on the ground in the first half; in the second they could gain only 58. On two sound legs Tittle had one interception in the first half; in the second, off balance, he had four.
Wade, a strong long passer and a good short passer, stuck absolutely to the Chicago game plan—something he has not always done in years past. He threw short passes and used Joe Marconi and Ronnie Bull in slashes at the line to maintain ball control and did this well enough so that the Bears dominated the second half.
Wade himself made the longest run of the Bear offense—12 yards on a broken pass pattern. Their longest passing gain was 34 yards to Marconi, when Wade put pressure on Linebacker Tom Scott's replacement, Al Gursky.
Wade probed the Giant corner linebackers often early in the game but, surprisingly, he gave up on this most successful play about halfway through the third quarter and never returned to it. The Giants had made no adjustment—there was no adjustment they could make with a rookie at each corner. They could not commit an end or a corner back to help the linebackers, because they needed their secondary and their line to limit the Bear offense to even smaller gains than the Bears managed. Yet the pattern of the 34-yard pass gain to Marconi, at the expense of Gursky, was not repeated by Wade.
Although the Giants might have won had Tittle not been hurt, the feeling of the Bears after the game was not one of strong respect for the Giant team. Mike Ditka, the bulky, broad and good tight end for the Bears, was critical in his assessment.
"They are not as good a team as the Green Bay Packers," he said. "The Packers can do more things to you. And the Packer defense seems better to me. The guy covering me today did a good job. Who is he? Pesonen? He's real good, good speed. But there were times when I was out there and had him beat, and the ball didn't get to me. I think the Packers are a better team."
In the small room off the dressing room beneath the stands at Wrigley Field where the Bear coaches retire to commune with themselves before they talk to the press, George Halas was almost in tears. "No game has meant as much to me as this one since we beat Washington 73-0," he said. "I've waited a long time. I don't know what to say about it. It's too much."
George Allen, cradling the game ball in his arms, grinned and shook his head. "I got the ball after we beat Philadelphia," he said. "Larry Morris got the car this time for being the game's best player. I wouldn't trade him this ball for his car."
It was, for spectators generally and for Giant fans in particular, a bitter day. The temperature was 11° when the game started, and it slipped to 6° before the end. The experts who had said that Tittle would not be able to throw in cold weather were wrong: while he had two legs under him he threw well. His receivers now and then dropped passes they might have held under more pleasant climatic conditions.
Maybe it was fated for George Halas to win. He is 68 years old, and there was a strong tide of sentiment for him and the Bears across the entire U.S. This Bear team, all season long, has been lucky. A team with so unimaginative an offense has to be lucky. After the game Bill Wade looked more beat up than did Tittle. Both his elbows were bleeding, and a quarterback does not have wounds on his elbows unless he has been knocked on his back.
Wade was knocked down often. But on this afternoon, subjected to the most pressure he has ever had to work under in his long career in pro football, Wade—who has had the reputation of never winning a big game—won the biggest game of all. He won it with grace and aplomb. But it is a sad fact of Bill Wade's life that he will not get too much credit for this Bear championship; most of the heroics on the Bear team were performed by the defense.
One Giant player said something that many players have thought about Wade, and he said it unhappily. "Wade can't score on you if he gets the ball far enough away from the goal line so that he has to make a first down before he goes in. If the defense doesn't give him the ball on the five, he's dead."
That is not exactly true. Furthermore, not every quarterback does go in when he is given the ball close to the goal—Wade did it twice last Sunday. No, Bill Wade is a fine quarterback. You don't win championships in the National Football League with anything but fine quarterbacks.
But a defense can help.