Wednesday, May 25, 2016

1934 NFL MVP Retroactive

(Part four of an ongoing series)
By Chris Willis, NFL Films
The National Football League didn’t recognize a Most Valuable Player Award until 1938 when Joe F. Carr, President of the league at that time, announced that the NFL would officially name a MVP that season. Giants’ center-linebacker Mel Hein won the inaugural award receiving a watch at midfield right before the kickoff of the 1938 NFL Championship Game. 

Last year, Pro Football Journal looked at four retroactive MVP races in three parts: To refresh your memory here were the previous MVPs:

1930- Verne Lewellen, Green Bay Packers, End (Part 3)
1931- Johnny “Blood” McNally, Green Bay Packers, Wing-Back (Part 3)
1933- Ken Strong, New York Giants, Fullback (Part 2)
1936- Dutch Clark, Detroit Lions, Quarterback-Halfback (Part 1)

In this installment, I’ll look at the MVP race for the 1934 NFL season.

One of the big off-season stories in the NFL in 1934 was the sale of the Portsmouth Spartans to radio mogul George A. Richards, who moved the franchise north to Detroit and renamed them the Lions. His squad would have a big say in who would win the NFL title in 1934.

In a decade dominated by rushing the 1934 NFL season was no different. The ten NFL teams (we are combing St. Louis-Cincinnati) played a variety of schedules because of a few games being canceled. The Bears, Lions, and Giants all played 13 games; while the Redskins and Pirates played 12; and the Dodgers, Cardinals, Eagles and Cincy-St. Louis squads played 11 each. So sifting through each team’s games and play on the field will be accounted.

1934 NFL Standings

Eastern Division
Pts. For
Pts. Against
New York Giants
Boston Redskins
Brooklyn Dodgers
Philadelphia Eagles
Pittsburgh Pirates
Western Division
Pts. For
Pts. Against
Chicago Bears
Detroit Lions
Green Bay Packers
Chicago Cardinals
*St. Louis Gunners
*Cincinnati Reds
*Reds folded after eight games; replaced by St. Louis Gunners.

NFL teams in 1934 totaled 16,967 rushing yards on 4,441 carries (a 3.8 average) with 101 touchdowns. While the passing statistics are downright awful. NFL signal callers threw 1,606 passes and completed just 505, a completion percentage of 31 percent, for 7,117 yards.

The more glaring stat is the comparison of passing touchdowns to interceptions. There were only 56 touchdowns compared to a whopping 206 interceptions. Despite the new rules implemented for the 1933 season (hash marks and passing legal anywhere behind the line of scrimmage), the passing game was still a work in progress for most teams in 1934.

Every team threw at least fifteen interceptions with the Brooklyn Dodgers throwing a league-high 26 picks- which probably tells why they won only four games all season and scored the third lowest points in the league with 61 behind the Pirates (51) and the Cincy-St. Louis combo (37).


Packers quarterback Arnie Herber was heads and shoulders above his counterparts in passing. He led the NFL in attempts (115), completions (42), passing yards (799) and touchdowns (8). Herber did throw 12 interceptions and some of his turnovers hurt his team as he guided the Packers to a 7-6 record. Harry Newman guided his Giants to an Eastern Division title (8-5) but wasn’t quite as sharp as Herber. He threw for nearly 400 yards but only 1 touchdown compared to a rather shocking 12 interceptions. Just like Herber some of his turnovers hurt the team in the win-loss column. Newman did make up for it in the rushing department as he carried the ball an amazing 141 times (led the NFL with 14.1 carries a game) for 483 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games. Making him one of the NFL’s best double threats in 1934.  Herber had just 33 rushing yards on 37 carries.

In the end, Herber remained the best passer in the NFL in 1934, but Newman was the better all-around player. His passing and running led his team to the division title and that edges his name ahead of Herber in the MVP race.

In Detroit, the great Dutch Clark put up some underrated numbers. He completed 23 of 50 passes. That doesn’t sound like much but when the league was completing just 31 percent of their passes, Clark was around 46 percent and although he didn’t throw a touchdown pass he didn’t turn the ball over quite as much as the other passers in the league with just three interceptions.

1934 NFL Passing Stats
Arnie Herber, Green Bay
42 of 115 passes, 799 yards
8 TDs/12 INTs
Warren Heller, Pittsburgh
31 of 112 passes, 511 yards
2 TDs/ 15 INTs
Harry Newman, New York
35 of 93 passes, 391 yards
1 TD/ 12 INTs
Dutch Clark, Detroit
23 of 50 passes, 383 yards
0 TDs/ 3 INTs
Ed Matesic, Philadelphia
20 of 60 passes, 278 yards
2 TDs/ 5 INTs

With the below-average passing stats in 1934 no receiver separated himself that season. Eagles end Joe Carter was the best of the bunch finishing second in the NFL in receiving yards (238) and first in catches (16 tied with Red Badgro of the Giants) and receiving touchdowns with 4. Not numbers or play worthy of an MVP discussion.
1934 NFL Receiving Stats
Harry Ebding, Detroit
10 rec, 264 yards, 26.4 avg
2 TDs
Joe Carter, Philadelphia
16 rec, 238 yards, 14.9 avg
4 TDs
Red Badgro, New York
16 rec, 206 yards, 12.9 avg
1 TD
Ben Smith, Pittsburgh
14 rec, 218 yards, 15.6 avg
0 TD
Jack Grossman, Brooklyn
11 rec, 161 yards, 14.6 avg
1 TD

Here’s where the MVP race heats up. In the end the contenders really come down to two teams (and three players) who clearly dominated the NFL’s regular season in 1934. The Chicago Bears, who finished the regular season undefeated at 13-0 and the Detroit Lions, who finished second in the Western Division behind the Bears at 10-3 (more on their match-ups later) were the class of the NFL. Playing many games with the lead the two teams finished number one and two in the NFL in rushing.

Team Rushing Stats
  1. Chicago Bears-        567 carries for 2,847 (5.0 average); 20 TDs
  2. Detroit Lions-          632 carries for 2,640 (4.3 average); 27 TDs
  3. New York Giants-   567 carries for 1,935 (3.4 average); 12 TDs
  4. Philly Eagles-          460 carries for 1,876 (4.1 average); 11 TDs
  5. Boston Redskins-    415 carries for 1,688 (4.0 average); 10 TD
The Bears rushed for an impressive 2,847 yards on 567 carries, averaging an incredible 5.0 yards per rush. They rushed for 20 touchdowns, only bested by the Lions impressive 27 TDs. The Lions rushed for 2,640 yards for an average of 4.3-yard per carry but did it on an NFL-high 632 carries. Potsy Clark’s Lions definitely liked to keep the ball on the ground as his team threw just 142 passes- only the Cardinals (132) and the Redskins (138) threw less.

Dutch Clark was the Lions' best rusher finishing 3rd in the NFL in rushing with 763 yards on a modest 123 attempts (his attempts per game were just 8th in the league), averaging a nice 6.2 yards per carry, and scored 8 rushing TDs. Clark did not play in the NFL in 1933, opting to coach college basketball in Colorado, but didn’t miss a beat returning to play for the Lions in ’34.  
Lions Halfback-Quarterback Dutch Clark carrying football against the Green Bay Packers
Credit: PFJ
The 13-game schedule definitely contributed to the Bears and Lions great rushing stats, but the Bears rushing season was more than that. To put it in more historical terms the Bears 1934 rushing season was one of the best rushing years in NFL history. Besides the Detroit Lions rushing for 2,885 yards in 1936 no other NFL team surpassed the Bears total of 2,847 (13-game season) until the 1972 Miami Dolphins rushed for a NFL single-season high of 2,960 in 14-games.

In Bears history only the 1984 Bears team rushed for more yards than the 1934 version and they did it by carrying the ball over 100 more times in three more games.

Bears Team History (1920-2015): Single-Season Record, Rushing Yards
  1. 1984 Bears:  674 carries for 2,974 rushing yards (16 games)
  2. 1934 Bears:  567 carries for 2,847 rushing yards (13 games)
  3. 1977 Bears:  599 carries for 2,811 rushing yards (14 games)
Newspaper Headline Nagurski-Feathers Best Combination in League
Credit: San Bernardino County Sun, Nov. 1, 1934

The Bears record-breaking 1934 season featured the one-two punch of fullback Bronco Nagurski and rookie phenom, halfback Beattie Feathers. Nagurski finished 4th in the NFL with 586 yards rushing on 123 carries and scored 7 TDs. The rookie from Tennessee - Feathers - compiled the NFL’s first-ever 1,000-yard season by carrying the ball 119 times for 1,004, setting an NFL record of 8.4 yards per rush and scored 8 rushing touchdowns.
Bears Halfback Beattie Feathers (#48) ball carrier as fullback Bronco Nagurski (#3) lead blocks.
Credit: PFJ
Looking at the numbers (as well as the undefeated regular season) you would think that Feathers would be a run-away easy MVP. But Nagurski’s other strength in 1934 was that he was the lead blocker on most of Feathers’ carries, leading the way for Feathers to average over 8 yards per rush. When Nagurski ran the ball rarely did Feathers lead block for Bronco.

The Eagles Swede Hanson had a very productive year finishing the season 2nd in the NFL in rushing with 805 yards, but had a boatload of carries with 146 carries as the team from the city of Brotherly Love had just a 4-7 record. 
Eagles halfback Swede Hanson ball carrier against Lions
Credit: PFJ

1934 NFL Rushing Stats
Beattie Feathers, Chi B
119 att, 1,004 yards, 8.4 avg
8 TDs
Swede Hanson, Phil
146 att, 805 yards, 5.5 avg
7 TDs
Dutch Clark, Det
123 att, 763 yards, 6.2 avg
8 TDs
Bronko Nagurski, Chi  B
123 att, 586 yards, 4.8 avg
7 TDs
Ernie Caddell, Det
105 att, 528 yards, 5.0 avg
4 TDs

1934 NFL Rushing Attempts Per Game
  1. Harry Newman, New York            14.1 carries per game
  2. Swede Hanson, Philadelphia          13.3
  3. Clarke Hinkle, Green Bay              12.0
  4. Ace Gutowsky, Detroit                  11.2
  5. Warren Heller, Pittsburgh              11.0
  6. Beattie Feathers, C. Bears              10.8
  7. Ken Strong, New York                   10.6
  8. Dutch Clark, Detroit                       10.3
  9. Bronko Nagurski, C. Bears              9.5
  10. Ed Danowski, New York                 9.4
Despite not having some of the rushing or passing stats of the previous players the Giants' Ken Strong helped carry his team to victories. In a three-week stretch in October, Strong accounted for 34 of his team’s 48 points in three wins against the Dodgers, Pirates and Eagles. Strong finished the season 4th in scoring with 56 points. On November 25th, playing without an injured Harry Newman, Strong’s 14-yard field goal was the difference in a crucial 3-0 win over the Boston Redskins- keeping the Giants in the Eastern Division title hunt. Strong’s lack of rushing success does hurt him. He carried the ball 138 times (5th in the NFL) for only 431 yards (11th in NFL), putting him behind the other top candidates.

Besides dominating the rushing categories the Bears’ Jack Manders led the league in scoring with 76 points, mostly on field goals and extra points. No wonder the Bears went undefeated. But the MVP race comes down to the Lions’ Dutch Clark and the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski and Beattie Feathers.


1934 NFL Scoring
Jack Manders, C Bears
76 points (3 TDs, 10 FGs, 28 XPs)
Dutch Clark, Detroit
73 points (8 TDs, 4 FGs, 13 XPs)
Glenn Presnell, Detroit
63 points (7 TDs, 4 FGs, 9 XPs)
Ken Strong, New York
56 points (6 TDs, 4 FGs, 8 XPs)
Beattie Feathers, C Bears
55 points (9 TDs, 1 XP)

Looking at the MVP race in 1934 the Lions and Bears were clearly the two best teams in the league. But looking closer at the games one has to consider the caliber of opponents they played. Glancing at the teams, any games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati-St. Louis combo have to be tossed out because they were the two weakest teams in the league. The Pirates went 2-10 and were outscored 51-206. While the Cincy-St. Louis squad is one of the worse teams in NFL HISTORY. They went a combined 1-10 and were outscored 37-304!

Key Games

One of the big accomplishments for the Detroit Lions in 1934, besides their dominant running game, was their play on defense. Led by back Dutch Clark and tackle George Christensen the Lions started the season winning their first ten games, including an amazing seven straight shutouts to start the season. You could make a case that Christensen was just as valuable on defense as Clark was on offense. During that stretch the Lions outscored their opponents 118-0. In the eighth game of the year, the shutout streak was snapped by the lowly Pirates, but the Lions won the game 40-7. In that game, the Lions rushed for a NFL single-game record 426 yards. But keep in mind that the Pirates were one of the worse in the NFL.

The Lions' 10-0 record on Nov. 18th did include quality wins over the Giants, Packers, Redskins and two wins over a scrappy Cardinals team. The big games in 1934 came down at the end of the year as the Bears, who were undefeated too at 10-0, would face each other in back-to-back games.
Lions Halfback-Quarterback Dutch Clark ball carrier against the Giants
Credit:  PFJ
In the Lions’ second game (Sept, 30th) Dutch Clark scored the only touchdown to help the Lions defeat a tough Cardinals squad 7-0. Three games later he almost single-handily defeated the Dodgers by scoring three third-quarter touchdowns in a 28-0 victory. Clark also dominated lesser opponents with big games against Cincinnati (two touchdowns) and Pittsburgh (one touchdown and three extra points). He was the guiding force behind the Lions reaching 10-0.

The Bears defense was equally tough giving up 86 points, 2nd in the NFL behind the Lions stingy 59 points. As for the two-headed monster of Feathers and Nagurski they led an offensive onslaught that helped the Bears led the NFL in scoring with 286 points- the next team was the Lions with 238, the third-best scoring team was the Packers with just 156.

In the season opener (Sept. 23rd) against the tough Green Bay Packers, Nagurski threw the first punch. After a sluggish first half that saw both teams kick field goals Nagurski took over by throwing a touchdown pass to Bill Hewitt and running for two fourth-quarter touchdowns (including one from 40 yards) to clinch a 24-10 road win.

Feathers then picked up the slack over the next five games, although against a few weaker opponents. In two games against Cincinnati, the rookie scored three touchdowns and had two 100-yard games (140 and 114). Against the Pirates he sprinted for a 82-yard score while piling up another 100-yard game.
Bears Halfback Beattie Feathers ball carrier
Credit:  PFJ
But in the rematch against the Packers on Oct. 28th Feathers took the lead in the MVP race with one of the greatest games by a Bears running back. He rushed for 155 yards and scored two touchdowns in an impressive 27-14 victory. His 155-yard rushing was a team record for a single game until 1956 when Rick Casares rushed for 190 against the Lions.

As the season reached November the Bears had two games against the mighty New York Giants within three weeks. On November 4th the 7-0 Bears played the 5-2 Giants at Wrigley Field. The two-headed monster dominated the Giants. Nagurski runs up the middle was complimented by Feathers sweeps outside. Bronco scored a short touchdown run in the 2nd quarter to give the Bears a 14-0, while a Feathers short TD pass to Carl Brumbaugh helped seal an easy 27-7 victory.

Bears Fullback Bronco Nagurski being gang tackled by Mel Hein and others of the New York Giants,
1934 NFL Championship Game
Credit: PFJ
Two weeks later the Bears, still undefeated at 9-0, and the Giants (6-3) battled at the Polo Grounds in front of a massive crowd of 55,000 fans. The Big Apple saw one of the toughest and most hard-hitting games of the year. The Giants took control of the game early behind the play of Ken Strong. His touchdown run and a safety gave the hometown team a 9-0 lead that held up into the 4th quarter. Then with 8 minutes remaining the undefeated Bears mounted a drive. First, Nagurski rumbled 20 yards deep into Giants territory, setting up a 12-yard TD run by Feathers on one of his patent sweeps. The extra point made it 9-7. Then after a crucial Giants fumble the Bears completed the comeback as Jack Manders booted a 24-yard field goal with 50 seconds remaining. The Bears stayed undefeated with a hard-fought 10-9 victory.

Feathers Injury and the Two Biggest Games of the Year
On November 25th the MVP race and the season changed for the Chicago Bears. In a game against the cross-town rivals Cardinals, the Bears lost rookie sensation Beattie Feathers to a shoulder injury. During the game Feathers went over the one-thousand mark, reaching 1,004 yards. But shortly after becoming the first-ever player to rush for 1,000 yards he badly injured his shoulder. Nagurski carried the ball more in the second half and his 4th quarter TD clinched a 17-6 victory.

On the same day Feathers was injured the Lions were upset 3-0 by the Green Bay Packers, ruining their bid for an undefeated season.
Headlines Beattie Feathers 1934 Shoulder Injury
Credit: Lincoln Evening-Journal, Nov. 27, 1934
The injury to an MVP-caliber player who was having a great year would’ve hurt most NFL teams. But most teams didn’t have Bronco Nagurski. After defeating the Cardinals the Bears were 11-0 and heading into their two toughest games. Back-to-back contests with the Detroit Lions, just four days apart from each other.

When G. A. Richards bought the Portsmouth Spartans and moved them to Detroit he wanted a showcase game to put his team on the front pages of newspapers in the Motor City. So the radio mogul convinced George Halas to bring his team to Detroit on Thanksgiving. Richards then put the game on national radio with NBC.

With Feathers on the sidelines the Bears (11-0) faced off against the Lions (10-1) in front of 25,000 fans at Titan Stadium. The Lions needed to win both games in four days to take the Western Division. In the first half it looked like they would win the first game.

The first quarter saw the two teams exchange touchdowns but then the Lions took control of the game in the 2nd quarter. Lions halfback Glenn Presnell booted a 42-yard field goal and Dutch Clark led a 65-yard scoring drive that cumulated in a short TD run by Ace Gutowsky. Heading into halftime the Lions held a comfortable 16-7 lead. The home fans could smell victory. But you don’t get to be 11-0 by laying down.

The Bears came out in the second half a different team. The defense played fantastically and held the Lions scoreless. As for the offense, the Bears adjusted without Feathers’ sweeps by running Nagurski up the middle. Yards were tough to get through the Lions defensive front but the Bears did enough to set up two field goals by Jack Manders. Heading into the final quarter the Bears only trailed 16-13. After throwing only three passes all game the Lions decided to take a gamble- and lost. Gutowsky threw a bad pass that was intercepted by Joe Zeller who took the ball down inside the Lions’ five-yard line.

The Bears tried Nagurski twice up the middle, but got nowhere. But the MVP candidate on 3rd down faked a line plunge and stepped back throwing the go-ahead score to end Bill Hewitt. The Bears defense held the Lions the rest of the way for a 19-16 win.
Bears Fullback Bronco Nagurski ball carrier against the Detroit Lions
Credit:  PFJ
Three days later at Wrigley Field (crowd of 34,412) Nagurski led the Bears to an undefeated season. Playing again without Feathers, the bruising fullback scored a short touchdown run in the first quarter to set the tone. The defense did the rest as the Bears earned a hard-fought 10-7 win to complete a 13-0 regular season.

Key Stat: In the 11 games before the Lions played the Bears they gave up just 30 points- only 2.7 points per game- including seven straight shutouts to start the season. In the two games against the Bears they surrender 29 points, nearly 15 points a game. Although the Bears averaged 23.3 points per game with Feathers in the lineup Nagurski helped lead the Bears’ offense to over two touchdowns a game against the league’s best defense.

A week after beating the Lions twice in four days the Bears were stunned in the 1934 NFL Championship Game by the Giants at the Polo Grounds in the famous “Sneakers Game”- failing to finish the season undefeated.

1934 NFL MVP

As for the 1934 MVP race it comes down to a close vote.

The Eagles Swede Hanson had a career year leading the NFL in carries (146) 2nd in rushing (805) and 2nd in total touchdowns (8). But the Eagles won only four games. Packers quarterback Arnie Herber led the NFL in attempts, completions, yards and passing touchdowns while leading Green Bay to a 7-6 record and losses to the Bears (twice), Lions, Giants and Cardinals (twice). Plus he guided the Packers to the upset victory against the Lions in late November to ruin their perfect season. Herber finishes 5th in the MVP voting.
Arnie Herber. Credit: PFJ
The Giants duo of Harry Newman and Ken Strong played hard each week giving the Giants a chance to win every game. It's tough to separate either one them in the importance to their team. Newman finished in the top three in all major passing categories except for touchdowns and he led his team to the Eastern Division title before getting hurt in the next to last game. Strong finished 4th in the NFL in scoring (56) and came up with the crucial touchdowns in the Giants’ biggest games of the year. The Giants duo finish tied for 4th in the vote.
Newman. Credit: PFJ
Ken Strong. NY Giants. Credit: PFJ

Now, down to the final three.

Lions super-star Dutch Clark continued his great play on the field since joining the NFL in 1931. Playing in 12 games in 1934 Dutch led his team to 10 wins; finished 3rd in rushing (763); 4th in passing; and 2nd in scoring (73). He played great defensive in the Lions secondary and despite finishing 8th in rushing attempts per game, was 2nd in the league in yards from scrimmage with 835. The only thing holding Clark back was his play down the stretch. He failed to help his team score in the Packers 3-0 upset win in late November, as well as not making an impact in the two games against the Bears. Dutch places 3rd in the MVP vote for 1934.

Nobody had a better year statistically than Beattie Feathers. He finished 1st in the league in rushing (1,004); in yards per carry (8.4); in rushing touchdowns (tied with Clark); in total TDs (9); in yards from scrimmage (1,178); longest run (82 yards); and rushing yards per game (91.3). Feathers also played big in wins over the Packers, Dodgers, and both Giants games. But missing the final two games hurts him.

The definition of MVP is pretty self-explanatory. So if missing the two most important games of the year, and your team still wins, you might not get the vote.

Bronco Nagurski played in all 13 Bears games and was the heart and soul of an undefeated team. Every game the Bears played he was a marked man. He finished 4th in the NFL in rushing (586); tied for 3rd in rushing TDs (7); and was 9th in the league in rushing attempts per game behind Newman, Feathers, Strong and Dutch Clark with only 9.5 carries a game. He made the most of his carries throughout 1934. Plus, he was the lead blocker for Feathers and a Bears team that rushed for a NFL high 2,847 yards.

Nagurski helped guide his team to back-to-back wins against the tough Lions in the season’s final two games- just three days apart too- while having no Feathers in the backfield. In the end his production on the field, as well as his defensive play and blocking prowess gives him the edge over Feathers in a close, close vote.

After finishing 3rd in the voting the previous year in PFJ's retroactive MVPs, Bronco Nagurski is your 1934 NFL MVP.

Nagurski. Credit: PFJ
1934 NFL MVP
Top Five
  1. Bronco Nagurski, Chicago Bears, Fullback
  2. Beattie Feathers, Chicago Bears, Halfback
  3. Dutch Clark, Detroit Lions, Tailback-Quarterback
  4. Harry Newman, New York Giants, Quarterback; Ken Strong, New York Giants, Fullback
  5. Arnie Herber, Green Bay Packers, Quarterback


  1. Great article, I agree with your choices, But, the poor linemen, they get no respect. After the championship game, Lou Little said (Bill) "Morgan's was the greatest exhibition of line play I've ever seen. It's a perfect example of what a one-man rampage can do to a great running attack."

  2. With Clark and the Gruen Award in 1937 that means 1935 and 1932 are the only two left to do in the 30's.

    Are the 1920's going to be done also?

  3. Yes, Chris will be doing the 1920s as well

    1. Great. That's of more interest to me. Perhaps can fill in some of the blanks for me (McBride '27 & ... )

  4. Do you think the carry total for Feathers is "settled"? I know there has/had been some controversy.