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George Allen became a Bears legend 60 years ago today

In book excerpt, author Mike Richman shows how the future Hall of Fame coach cooked up a master defensive gameplan in the 1963 NFL championship game.

George Allen, carried off the field by the Bears following their 14-10 win in the 1963 NFL championship game, Dec. 29, 1963.

“Our defensive coach, George Allen, has made us real ball-conscious by pounding away that it’s anybody’s ball as soon as it goes up in the air.” — Bears safety Roosevelt Taylor, 1963

“Get Tittle. Knock him on his ass.” — Bears defensive end Ed O’Bradovich, 2023


Quick: Which Bears defense has the modern franchise record for allowing the fewest points per game?

It wasn’t ‘85. They allowed a sterling 12.4 points per game, about two points worse than the record. It wasn’t ‘86. They famously allowed even fewer points than in ‘85, at 11.7 a game, about a point and a half worse than the best mark.

It wasn’t a Lovie Smith-coached team. That was 2005 at 12.6 points per game. Another Urlacher-led team, 2001, led the NFL at 12.7. The Club Dub Mack-Eddie-Fuller-Hicks defense? First in the NFL, but in a higher-scoring era at 17.7 points allowed.

No, since World War II, the fewest points allowed by a Bears defense was 10.3, courtesy of the 1963 NFL champions.

The man credited with the success of that unit: defensive coordinator George Allen.

“Most people, the championship in ‘63, attribute that to the defense. And that Allen was a brilliant defensive coach,” long-time Allen favorite George Burman told me in 2020. “That certainly was his focus.”

In his new book “George Allen: A Football Life,” journalist and author Mike Richman brings renewed attention to our (ugh) second-to-last championship season. That was 1963, Allen’s sixth year on George Halas’s staff. He had risen quickly, making his name as director of player personnel, leading the scouting and drafting efforts that brought in championship starters Mike Ditka, Bennie McRae, Ed O’Bradovich and Richie Petitbon.

After defensive coordinator and football guru Clark Shaughnessy resigned following the 1962 season, Allen took over the defense. His changes included simplifying schemes that let 6’8 defensive mammoth Doug Atkins run wild.

“We knew exactly what we were going to do,” Atkins told Halas biographer Jeff Davis. “We’d line up and just tee off and play football.”

As Richman notes, the Bears defense under Allen in ‘63 was a masterclass in defensive football at all levels of the defense. On the line, Atkins led a defensive front-four that helped hold offenses to 3.5 yards per carry, down from 4.7 yards per carry in 1962. To help on the d-line, Allen brought in former Rams championship head coach and Bears Hall of Fame offensive tackle Joe Stydahar. The linebackers Bill George, Joe Fortunato and Larry Morris all garnered various All Pro honors.

But the standouts were the secondary. Safety Rosevelt Taylor tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions, followed closely by fellow safetyman Richie Petitbon with eight. Corners Bennie McRae and Davey Whitsell each had six, a remarkable 29 interceptions that still stands as the Bears franchise record for most interceptions by the starting four DBs.

As Richman writes, “the Allen-coached unit led the NFL in ten of nineteen statistical categories and placed second in eight others. The defense allowed a league-low 144 points (10.3 per game), 62 fewer than the next team, the Packers. Other major defensive firsts included interceptions (36), total yards (3,176), rushing yards (1,442), passing yards (1,734), pass completions (164), and ball-control plays (runs and passes, 801).”

After battling through a vicious ‘63 season that included a pair of showdown wins over the two-time defending champion Packers, the Bears reached the NFL championship game against the New York Giants and their star quarterback, NFL MVP Y.A. Tittle.

Allen’s gameplan: kill Tittle.

“Get Tittle, knock him on his ass,” O’Bradovich told Richman. “That was basically it. You get Y. A. Tittle, and it’s all over with — game, set, and match.”

Here is Mike Richman with the rest of the story on how Allen’s defense executed that vision, from “George Allen: A Football Life”:

(Allen) called for applying maximum pressure on Tittle in the pocket and denying him the ability to connect on the bomb by double-teaming Shofner and Gifford. He also aimed to shut down the screen pass, one of the Giants’ key weapons. In one practice, the Bears’ taxi squad quarterback repeatedly threw every one of the screen passes in New York’s arsenal. Plus, Allen and Chicago’s coaching staff created a four-hundred-foot film reel of eight of the Giants’ games, guaranteeing hours and hours of studying.

There was nothing fancy about the mind-set of the Bears’ defense. “Get Tittle, knock him on his ass,” O’Bradovich recalled. “That was basically it. You get Y. A. Tittle, and it’s all over with — game, set, and match.” He noted that a lot of the Giants’ production on offense came via screen plays and “lates,” when the quarterback drops back to pass, the backs set up like they’re going to block, and the quarterback drops the ball into their belly — similar to a draw play. “That’s what George Allen wanted stopped, the screen passes and the lates, because that was the heart of their offense,” O’Bradovich said. “They ran it to perfection.”

Allen couldn’t have scripted a better game plan. Before a packed crowd of 45,801 at Wrigley Field on December 29, 1963, the Bears exhibited a masterful defensive performance in a 14–10 win over the Giants. On a bitterly cold day with the temperature at 4 degrees and the wind chill at −11, the defense strangled Tittle and company and compensated for a Bears offense that rushed for 93 yards and lost 2 fumbles. Tittle completed only 11 of 29 passes for 147 yards and threw 5 interceptions, 2 of them on screen passes that turned the tide in the Bears’ favor. His favorite target, Shofner, didn’t catch a pass and let a potential touchdown, one that would have put the Giants up, 14–0, go off his fingertips. The Bears also recovered a fumble, and a defensive formation they hadn’t used all year called “fifty-one Mickey” resulted in two big sacks by Larry Morris.

Twice the Bears used Allen’s preparation for the Giants screen pass, and screen pass counters, to swing momentum. As Richman writes, with the Giants up 7-0 in the first quarter, Tittle faked a screen pass one way and threw in the flat the other. Linebacker Larry Morris jumped the route and ran the pick 61 yards to the Giants 5, setting up quarterback Billy Wade’s two-yard touchdown sneak for a touchdown.

Later, with the Giants up 10–7 in the third, it was O’Bradovich’s turn to pick off a short Tittle pass to set up another short Wade touchdown run.

“We practiced that play all week,” O’Bradovich told Richman. “We tried to know how the offensive tackle and the quarterback are going to set up and how many steps back the quarterback is going to take. Is he going to try to suck you in so you might take an inside rush? We knew that was coming.”

Richman concludes:

Chicago’s defense held on from there, intercepting two more passes, both in the end zone, to stop fourth-quarter drives. First, it was Bennie McRae. Then Petitbon cradled Tittle’s desperation pass after it floated into the end zone with less than ten seconds to play.

Champions for the first time since 1946, the Bears and their fans began celebrating. An exuberant Halas, with his sixth NFL Championship in hand, was hugged and congratulated on the sideline. But only one Bears coach received a victory ride on his players’ shoulders—the man widely regarded as the true genius behind the team’s success in the regular season and the championship game: George Allen.

Allen received more accolades in the steamy and noisy Bears locker room, a scene of bedlam. George Connor, a great Bears two-way lineman and linebacker from 1948 to 1955, was trying to conduct interviews for NBC, which broadcast the game, when Fortunato interrupted him: “I want to make a short speech. I want to announce, as one of the co-captains, that the game ball goes to the man who played such a great part in our fine defense—coach George Allen.” Fortunato tossed the ball to Allen.

Then, with NBC’s cameras rolling and a national TV audience looking on with a combination of amazement and amusement, the players congregated to serenade the defensive wizard with their traditional victory song. Nasty Bears lineman-end Ed Sprinkle had conceived of the song in a previous era to honor a player or coach: “Hooray for George, hooray at last, hooray for George, he’s a horse’s ass!” In his 1979 autobiography, Halas tried to explain that the song was meant for him, but it clearly wasn’t.

“It was a wonderful victory for coach Halas, and it was a great thing for coach Allen,” Bill George said in the locker room. “He helped us develop a great defense. Nobody will ever know all the work that went into this championship.”

In May, Ed O’Bradovich turned 83. He was a 23-year-old second-year pro in 1963, and to this day he credits one man above all others for the ‘63 title.

“In my mind, everything goes to George Allen,” he told Richman. “We scored 2 touchdowns, both on quarterback sneaks. Our offense didn’t move that well. That defense proved without a doubt that you can win a world championship with defense.”

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This article excerpts “George Allen: A Football Life” by Mike Richman, published in November 2023. To get an author-autographed copy of the book, visit Richman at mikerichmanjournalist.com.

Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.

For more on the 1963 Bears and George Allen, this piece by NFL historian T.J. Troup on fellow historian John Turney’s site is a wonderful, detailed tribute. Jack Silverstein’s feature on “the first long snapper,” George Burman, breaks down Allen’s role in creating the first special teams unit in NFL history.