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From the Archive - Week 5, 1944 vs. Cleveland Rams

For the bye, I wanted to go back... way back.  The earliest footage I have ever seen of a Bears game dates from 1944, featuring highlights of when the 1-2-1 Bears matched up for the second time against the 3-1 Cleveland Rams.  The stakes were already high for the Bears - having already lost to the division leading Green Bay Packers and the second place Rams, another loss would effectively knock them out of playoff contention with the season only half over.  Would Sid Luckman be able to get enough out of his ragtag team to keep in the hunt for a third straight NFL Championship?  And how did that T formation work, anyways?  Follow me below the fold for more than you ever wanted to know about how the game was played 65 years ago.

With World War II still on, the NFL was forced to find who it could to field teams.  A quick look at the 1944 roster shows that the average age of the Bears that year was a lofty 27.8, with plenty of players well into their 30s who were dragged out of retirement to fill out the roster.  Coach/Owner/God-among-men George Halas was recalled to the Navy, but he was able to lure Hunk Anderson. his kicker and kick returner from the late 1920s, and Luke Johnsos, a left end from the early 1930s, to come in and serve as co-coaches during his four-year absence.  Star quarterback Sid Luckman signed on with the Merchant Marines and was stationed in the US, allowing him to continue playing despite having to miss the team's practices.  With all this wrangling, the Bears were able to field a full team.  Not a bad one either, as they came a game short of beating out Green Bay for the division title.  While Halas couldn't have been happy with the results, it could have been a lot worse.  Across town, the Chicago Cardinals had to merge with the Pittsburg Steelers to form the "Car-Pitts," appropriately named given their eventual 0-10 record. 

The T Formation was a shock to the nation in 1940, when the Bears romped the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the NFL Championship Game to set the still-standing record for the largest margin of victory in an NFL game.  By 1944 it wasn't a surprise to anybody, but Sid Luckman was still the best in the game at running it.  The Bears' T was, at least in one principle, not much different than the Martzfence.  Starting with basic formations such as the one below, the quarterback would motion out his backs and move around his ends to confuse the defense and generate favorable match-ups for the backs and ends.



The ends would usually line up as tight ends as shown above, but Luckman could move them out to the slot to enable the ends to provide better edge blocking or get a free release from the line, the latter being very important in an era when there was almost no limit to how you could block a receiver downfield. The halfbacks usually lined up a bit further away from the fullback as the diagram shows.  This space between the backs made it easier to execute the pre-snap motions and post-snap assignments.  The backs could motion out to become slot receivers, defend against the blitz in passing situations, or block for each other on inside runs from this position.  And with a three-back set, one or two backs could be used as decoys to lure defenders away from the play. The flexibility and passer-friendliness of this offense gave it a distinct edge over older offenses like the single wing and option, which were perfected in an era when forward passes could only be made five yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The other main advantage of the T was how well it took advantage of NFL defenses of the era.  In a time where the rush was still king despite the rise of the forward pass, defenses would frequently line up with six, seven, or even nine-man fronts.  Two deep safeties would protect against the pass and runs that broke through the line, but for the most part, the plan was based around overloading the box with defenders in an attempt to break up plays in the backfield or hold them to short gains.  The linebackers were did not read a play and react in the way they do now, with most linebackers of the day staying near the line directly behind the tackles and ends to close running lanes or outside the defensive ends to protect the edges and disrupt passing routes.  But with the motions and misdirections of the T, it was easy to draw linebackers out of position and set up big plays over the top of the stacked fronts.  And with the defense crowding the line, sending two backs up a gap to block could open up huge holes in the middle of a defense.  Sid Luckman and his Bears could out-maneuver a defense by going around it, over it, or through it, and it was this unpredictability that created the most problems for opposing defenses.

We see all of this old-school NFL playbook at work in the game against the Rams.  You can see it too, as this highlight reel is up on YouTube:

29 Oct 1944 Cleveland Rams at Chicago Bears (via B14CKD34TH)


The Bears kicked the ball away to start the game, and after what we can only guess was a quick defensive stop, the Rams kicked the ball away only to have George Wilson get his hand on the ball just enough to keep the kick short. With his first possession, Sid Luckman quickly set the tempo for the first half. Working out of the T, Luckman sent a fullback in motion to the right slot position, which held the safety just long enough for Luckman to hit his real target, the left end, for a nice gain and a chance for an early score. The scoring play was another wonderful piece of deception: the left fullback ran a fake to the left side while right end Bob Margarita was being led by the left end and halfback towards the right sideline. He made his cut upfield, hopped over a fallen Bears blocker, and flopped down just inside the end zone. It wasn't a graceful landing, but it was points on the board early in the first.

The Rams were able to fight back with their defense, stripping Bear Bob Masters of the ball as he went back to pass on the Bears' next possession.  From there, Rams quarterback Albie Reisz found Walter West on a well-run screen pass to move the team into Bears territory, and sealed the deal with a bomb to Jim Benton good for six. The game tied, it was the Bears' turn to respond. Since the Rams had already shown they were vulnerable to the T's run-fakes, Luckman sent two of his backs to the right only to hand off the ball for a run to the left. The offensive line had already snuck their way to the right, and the runner was just able to outrun the backside pursuit to take advantage of the good blocking downfield and churn out some big yards. Bob Margarita showed his versility on the next play we see, slipping out of the backfield to catch a pass ten yards downfield. He stiff-armed the first defender away, and with the extra yards moved the Bears into first and goal. From here, it was time for power running. The Bears brought in their bruiser back, Gary Famiglietti, who plowed straight ahead two times to cross the chalk. The Bears led again, 14-7, and righted the ship after the strip-sack.

The momentum the Bears had on offense was carried over to the defense - no big surprise, since many of the players were lining up on both sides of the ball. The Rams' next drive was stopped cold when the defensive line came full-force into the backfield, bringing down Albie Reisz with huge sack shared by five different defenders. The hometown spirit grew even stronger on the next offensive possession, which ended with an amazing catch by Connie Mack Berry. He was well-covered on the goal line route and the Ram defender was able to tip Luckman's pass, but Berry was able to make a juggling catch and add to the Bears lead. The half would end with the Bears up 21 to 7, but there was still plenty of time for a Rams comeback.

The Rams were able to tie up the game with two straight touchdowns of their own. The first came off of a power run by Walter West, the second another pass from Reisz to Jim Benton to knot the game at 21. There was still time on the clock, however, and Luckman would have one last chance to score. With the ball on his own 34, he dialed up a run behind the right tackle for no gain. Unimpressive, but necessary to set up the next play.  Luckman lined up the players in the exact same formation and had them execute what appeared at first to be the exact same play: another run to the right of the line. This time, however, he gave the ball to Al Grygo, who made it out to the left edge of the Rams defense and kept running until he was touching the Wrigley Field ivy. The Bears would hold on to their 28-21 lead and notch their second win of the season, giving fans something to cheer for and the team hope that they could get their thrid straight NFL title. While they ended up one game short of the division title in the end, the Monsters of the Midway fielded yet another well-honed T offense to confuse and run over opponents.  Hope you enjoyed your history lesson for the day, and see you back here next week to talk about a slightly more recent game.