The indoor field at Chicago Stadium
|Date||December 18, 1932|
|Stadium||Chicago Stadium, Chicago, Illinois|
The 1932 NFL Playoff Game was an extra game held to break a tie in the 1932 season's final standings in the National Football League. It matched the host Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans. Because of snowfall and anticipated extremely cold temperatures in Chicago, Illinois, it was moved indoors and played at the three-year-old Chicago Stadium on December 18 on a reduced-size field on Sunday night.
Since the NFL's first season in 1920, the league title had been awarded to the team with the best regular season record based on winning percentage with ties excluded. Four of the first six championships were disputed, but only in 1921 did two teams ever finish tied atop the standings: the two teams disputing the title had played each other, splitting a two-game series, but league officials used a tiebreaker to controversially give the Bears (then known as the Staleys) the title over the Buffalo All-Americans.
In 1932, the Spartans and the Bears tied for first place with 6–1 records. Under the rules at the time, standings were based on winning percentage with ties excluded from the calculation, meaning that the Spartans and Bears each finished the regular season with identical .857 winning percentages, ahead of the defending champion Green Bay Packers' .769 (10 wins, 3 losses) winning percentage.
Had pure win-loss differential or the current (post-1972) system of counting ties as half a win, half a loss been in place in 1932, the Packers' record of 10–3–1 (.750, +7) would have won them a fourth consecutive championship, ahead of the Spartans' 6–1–4 (.727, +5) and the Bears' 6–1–6 (.692, +5). The Packers controlled their own destiny at the end of the 1932 season, but lost their final two games to the Spartans and the Bears.
Further complicating matters, the Spartans and Bears had played each other twice during the regular season for 13-13 and 7-7 ties, which rendered the league's only tiebreaker useless. As such, for the first time, the league arranged for what amounted to a replay game to determine the NFL champion, but the game would be counted in the final standings, meaning the loser would drop to 6–2 (.750) and finish third behind runner-up Green Bay.
The game was set to be played at Wrigley Field, the Bears' home stadium, but due to severe blizzards followed by extremely cold temperatures and wind chill, the game was moved indoors to Chicago Stadium.
Two years earlier, the Bears and Cardinals had played a charity exhibition game at the arena after the 1930 season, and the game was moved indoors due to extreme weather, allowing for reasonable attendance and gate revenue. The Bears won 9–7. It wasn't uncommon practice in the city, as local teams played in the Dexter Park Pavilion as early as 1917, when the Racine Cardinals and the Evanstons from Evanston, Illinois played to a scoreless tie.
A week before the game, the concrete surface had tanbark placed atop for a Salvation Army-sponsored circus; elephant manure from the circus produced an odor that caused a Bears player to throw up on the field.
Because of the limited dimensions of the indoor arena, special rules were adopted for the game:
- The tanbark-covered field itself was only 80 yards long (60 yards between the goal lines) and 45 yards wide, 10 yards narrower than the regulation width at the time.
- The sidelines were butted up against the stands.
- The goal posts were moved from the endlines to the goal lines (the NFL itself would move the goalposts to the goal line from 1933 to 1974).
- Every time a team crossed the 10-yard line, the ball was moved back 20 yards to allow for the shortened field.
- For the first time, all plays started with the ball on or between the hash marks, which were ten yards from the sidelines.
The high temperature for that Sunday in Chicago was 20 °F (−7 °C), warmer than anticipated earlier in the week.
With terrible footing on the mulch and limited room for the offenses to work, the defenses dominated the game's first three quarters, with the game remaining scoreless. Bears quarterback John Doehling's first pass flew into the stands, as did most punts and kickoffs, with one colliding with a Chicago Black Hawks sign and another hitting the organist as he played. By the end of the game, only one punt was returned.
On one drive, the Spartans were in position to score when Glenn Presnell tripped on the field before he could reach the end zone. For the Bears, they employed a heavy run game with fullback Bronko Nagurski, though possessions ended after just three downs as Ralph Jones frequently elected to pooch kick. In the fourth quarter, the Bears scored on a controversial touchdown: Carl Brumbaugh handed the ball off to Nagurski, who pulled up and threw to Red Grange in the end zone for the score. Rules at the time mandated that a forward pass had to be thrown from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Spartans argued Nagurski did not drop back five yards before passing to Grange, but the touchdown stood. The Bears later scored a safety after the Spartans fumbled the ball out of their end zone.
- Referee: Bobby Cahn
- Umpire: G.A. Brown
- Head Linesman: Meyer Morris
Because it proved so popular, the 1932 NFL Playoff Game started a new era for the National Football League and for American football in general. Through 1932, the league had used the same rules as college football. Beginning with the 1933 season, the NFL introduced its own set of rules. The goal posts were moved from the end line back to the goal line (reversed in 1974), all plays started with the ball on or between the hash marks, and the forward pass became legal anywhere behind the line of scrimmage; ironically, the forward pass rule was supported by Spartans head coach George Clark, who quipped, "Nagurski would do it anyway!" Its biggest legacy, however, was the creation of the NFL Championship Game in 1933, the NFL's original championship game, which would become the Super Bowl.
NFL Commissioner Joseph Carr described the rule changes as providing better scoring opportunities, which he believed "would improve the game for both players and spectators." Carr had attended the Playoff Game, and kept a ticket stub from the game in his personal scrapbook.
The 1932 NFL Playoff Game is also regarded as the first major indoor football game, a variation of American football with rules modified to make it suitable for play inside arenas. While several attempts to develop a true indoor football game have been made since then, the only version to meet with anything resembling true success and acceptance has been arena football.
This game was the first—and, for the next 87 years, only—time in which the NFL used an 80-yard field. In 2019, the Raiders and Packers met at IG Field in Winnipeg for a preseason game. The field, home to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, normally has goal posts 110 yards apart. The posts were moved for the NFL preseason game, but the resulting divots in the field caused a safety hazard. To allow the game to go on, the game was played on a hastily shortened 80-yard field. Kickoffs were eliminated and each team started play at its own 15-yard line.
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