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Origin of NFL playoffs

Having a playoff system was strictly by accident that is now a season-ending occurrence

Bronco Nagurski Throwing Football
Bronco Nagurski

In today’s NFL, 14 clubs out of 32 clubs make the post-season playoffs. Each game is dictated by win-loss records, head-to-head regular season games, common opponents, conference records, tie-game scenarios, and division winners.

Of course, more games mean more money for the league and its member clubs as the television rights to the playoffs and subsequent Super Bowl championship game are negotiated on a separate basis than the regular season schedule.

And the players make more money. During the season, rostered athletes are paid every two weeks of their contract rate. The playoffs are a different animal, however, as the NFL itself issues playoff game checks with winner and loser amounts. So, the more playoff wins, the more extra checks are deposited into each player’s coffers.

But there was a time when there weren’t any playoffs. At all. In fact, the idea for a playoff system actually happened on dumb luck.

Following the other sport

Back in the 1930s, professional football followed in the footsteps of Major League Baseball.

The majority of Americans loved two things in sports at the time: college football, and pro baseball.

The college football scene was a tightly-knit group of folks who were part of something they could touch and feel because every fan sitting in the stands was an actual relation of the team performing on the gridiron. That was their school, those were their fellow students, their fight song, their mascot and upon graduation the sentiments and direct association never subsided or went away.

With professional baseball, every kid who grew up had played baseball on some sandlot or played stick ball in the streets. But the game was the same at every level. Three outs, nine innings, a bat, a ball, a glove, several broken windows and the idea that you could knock one of the park was an American dream that perhaps would one day come true.

And pro baseball was ultra popular plus financially successful. Their players were nationally known and were seen in magazine ads and in newspapers. So whatever baseball did, pro football tried to emulate.

1932 playoff game indoors at Chicago Stadium

In Major League Baseball beginnings, there was only one league. The winner was the club that completed the season in first place with only wins and losses and never any ties. Later, the addition of the American League set up the World Series between the two leagues. But not in their origins. Whoever came in first was named the champs.

From the NFL’s maiden season of 1920 until 1932, there weren’t any divisions. Every team was stacked into one group and the team with the best win percentage at the conclusion of the season was declared the winner and league champion.

Ties were allowed and displayed in the standings, just not counted in tabulating the win percentages. This made the percentages oddly skewed at season’s end.

And another item: teams made their own schedules. This meant some clubs would have eight games while another might have 14 in the same season. Oh yeh one more thing: the winner wasn’t officially the league champion until the February owner’s meeting when it would be brought up as a motion, seconded, discussed and then voted on with three quarters majority to make it pass in order to secure the title.

Playoff format

The very first professional football playoff game occurred at the conclusion of the 1932 NFL season. But it was completely unplanned.

The Chicago Bears (6-1-6) and the Portsmouth Spartans (6-1-4) were tied percentage-wise (.857). With ties not counting, this meant they both ended their seasons with identical 6-1 records, identical win percentages and in first place.

What was odd was the fact that the Green Bay Packers finished their year 10-3-1 for a win percentage of .769.

Original Chicago Bears logo

In today’s calculations factoring in tie games, the Packers would have been declared league champions with a .714 win percentage while the Spartans (.545) and Bears (.462) would have trailed.

Green Bay had already won the 1929, 1930 and 1931 NFL Championships as the first NFL club to win three consecutive titles. If the league had counted ties back then, the Packers would have added a fourth in-a-row. The Packers also captured the NFL crown from 1965-1967 thus tying their own accomplishment as the only NFL franchise to win three championships in a row, a feat that has still not been broken.

But back to the 1932 season.

Both the Portsmouth and Chicago franchises had their lone loss early in their season. During the year, the Bears and Spartans had tied their two contests during the regular season 13-13 and 7-7, so no advantage in head-to-head contests which at the time was the league’s only official tie-breaker. So, they ended in a tie for first place in the league.

That had never happened before.

The NFL owners were suddenly in a quandary. Should there be co-champions of the league despite this never happening before? Should they go into the winter owner’s meeting and vote which of the two teams should be declared the winner?

Original Portsmouth Spartans logo

Ultimately, the owners decided that a one-game playoff game should be played. This would become the very first playoff game in professional football history.

But there was a problem. It seemed the NFL by-laws prohibited any championship deciding post-season match. This rule was adopted in 1924 which oddly enough was brought about because of George Halas and the Bears in a controversial championship.

The NFL owners either had to make the Spartans and Bears co-champions of the 1932 season, or change that by-law – which they hastily did.

Think about it: if they had not, there wouldn’t be a Super Bowl today.

Universal Stadium in Portsmouth, Ohio

Portsmouth’s home field was Universal Stadium. It was just four years old but only seated a capacity crowd of 8,500. The Spartans didn’t have issues selling out home games with the small size, but a playoff game would certainly attract a very large crowd. This meant a huge payday for both clubs and in fact, an extra payday.

The Bears played at baseball’s Wrigley Field with a capacity of 41,649. It was a no-brainer to schedule the one-game playoff in Chicago. Plus, this was smack in the middle of the Great Depression so funds were tight.

The game vs. Mother Nature

As anyone who has lived or visited Chicago in the winter, the weather can be very brutal.

The date for the one-game playoff was Sunday, December 18, 1932.

The week leading up to the game had disastrous weather in the prediction. Several days before kickoff, a terrible storm blanketed Chicago and the day before sub-zero temperatures were present with waist-high snowdrifts. Wrigley Field was nothing more than a snow dump on the field as well as the spectator seating. It would take an army of volunteers to shovel all the snow for patrons much less what to do with the piles of white substance. The field itself was unplayable.

It was then determined that the game could be relocated indoors to Chicago Stadium, home of the hockey Blackhawks.

1932 playoff game Chicago vs. Portsmouth

The move to Chicago Stadium was approved by NFL commissioner Joe Carr as well as the Spartans. The arena had a concrete floor, but luckily it already had 400 tons of dirt packed six inches deep where the hockey ice would normally be because a circus had just left two days earlier. Some sod was hastily brought in for the football contest and was deemed adequate for play to try to cover up the manure odor left by circus animals.

There was a another problem, however. Actually, a rather large issue. Because this was a hockey rink with hockey dimensions with sideboards already installed, the field wasn’t the suitable size for American Football being 100-yards long with two 10-yard end zones and 53 1/3 yards wide. Not even close.

The area for the football game would only sport a field 80-yards long by 45-yards wide. It also featured wooden sideboards, short end zones, plus one goal post was installed at one end of the field to save space and had to be relocated on the goal line instead of the end zone back line. Both teams would use this goal post in case of a point-after-touchdown attempt. In addition, the invention of hash marks would be painted for the first time in football history on this makeshift field.

At the time, any play out-of-bounds began one yard inside the field of play for the next down. With the new hash marks, the ball would be placed at the nearest mark for the next play.

Because of the short field dimensions, there were special rules implemented for this one game: 1) kickoffs would be made from each team’s own goal line, 2) the ball would be moved back 20-yards every time a team crossed the opponent’s 10-yard line, 3) the next play would begin at either side hash mark, 4) drop kicks were not allowed, and 5) field goals were not allowed but PATs were.

The attendance was an overflowing crowd of 11,198 despite the awful travel conditions for ticket buyers to get to the arena.

The game itself

Portsmouth joined the NFL in 1930 and was annually one of the league’s best teams having gone 11-3-0 the year before just barely missing the top slot. For this one playoff game, they were without their perennial All-Pro quarterback Dutch Clark who had made the Pro Bowl two seasons in a row and was the 1932 leading scorer. Decades later, Clark would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1930s, and have his Number 7 jersey retired.

The reason for Clark missing the championship game was that when the Spartans played their final game, there wasn’t any decision on what to do with the tie for first place. Like every other player in the league, Clark had an off-season job. He was the head basketball coach for Colorado College and had already left by train to start that season.

Portsmouth had the league’s best defense and held the Bears to a 0-0 score going into the final quarter. Deep in their own side of the field. Spartans’ backup QB Ace Gutowsky heaved a long pass that was intercepted by Chicago’s Dick Nesbitt and returned to Portsmouth’s seven yard line. On three consecutive plays, Bears fullback Bronco Naguski was stopped cold. Finally on fourth down, Nagurski was again given the ball who approached the line, stopped and then tossed a touchdown pass to Red Grange for the score.

1932 playoff game at Chicago Stadium

At the time, a forward pass was illegal unless the passer was at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Nagurski was clearly closer than that and Spartan’s head coach Potsy Clark (no relation to Dutch) vehemently objected. However, the play stood as called. The subsequent PAT was good.

On the next possession, Portsmouth punter Mule Wilson had a bad snap from center while in his own end zone that resulted in a safety for Chicago. The game ended 9-0 and at the owner’s meeting, the Bears were declared the 1932 NFL Champions.

The contest exhibited to the NFL owners that in the days when gate receipts were the majority source of income, a playoff - even for one game - not only generated more fan interest but also produced extra income for the club as well as the players. The total proceeds from the very first playoff game was announced at $15,000.

New rules adopted for 1933 include the goal posts moved to the goal line in order to encourage more field goal attempts and increase scoring, hash marks became a field staple dividing the width of the field into three sections, and forward passes were now allowed from any spot behind the line of scrimmage.

Plus, the following season the league decided to divide their clubs into two divisions and adopt a playoff format which pitted the two division winners against each other which would be called the “NFL Championship Game.”

And with that, the playoffs were born. In 1970, the “NFL Championship Game” was re-named the “Super Bowl.”