Chris Willis, NFL Films
(Part 6 of an on-going series)
|1929 NFL All-Pro Team Selected by the Chicago Tribune|
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 an 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. So far Pro Football Journal has looked at six retroactive MVP races in five parts: To refresh your memory here were the previous MVPs:
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 1929 NFL season.
1929 NFL Season
In 1929 the NFL celebrated its 10th season of play. A season that saw the Stock Market Crash in October and a few days later saw the First Night Game in NFL History. Played on Wednesday, Nov. 6,
1929 at Kinsley Park (Crowd: 6,000) the Chicago Cardinals defeated Providence Steam Roller, 16-0. All-Pro fullback Ernie Nevers threw a TD pass; kicked
a FG; ran for a TD. By the end of its first decade of action, the League was seeing
vast improvement with fans attending the games.
Attendance Figures (1921-1929)
All the attendance figures below were taken by actual newspaper accounts from the local press and it shows that as the decade moved on more attention was given to reporting attendance figures. Although some writers embellished the numbers of fans in their articles this is the only source we have to gauge these figures. The NFL didn’t keep official attendance figures. Also, in the second chart, the average attendance per NFL game showed a steady increase in fans attending NFL games, except for the big spike in 1925 with the arrival of Red Grange, from 1924 to 1929 the NFL almost doubled its average per game- with 1924 having three more games.
1921 APFA (66 league games) = 172, 804 fans (36 out of 66 games reported in papers).
1922 NFL (74 league games) = 187,752 fans (42 out of 74 games).
1923 NFL (88 league games) = 252,596 fans (57 out of 88 games).
1924 NFL (80 league games) = 292,444 fans (61 out of 80 games).
1925 NFL (103 league games) = 680,361 fans (74 out of 103 games).
1926 NFL (116 league games) = 490,800 fans (82 out of 116 games).
1927 NFL (72 league games) = 557,100 fans (64 out of 72 games).
1928 NFL (56 league games) = 440,400 fans (50 out of 56 games).
1929 NFL (71 league games) = 554,600 fans (61 out of 71 games)
Average Attendance Per Game
1921 APFA = 2,618 fans per game
1922 NFL = 2,537 fans per game
1923 NFL = 2,870 fans per game
1924 NFL = 3,655 fans per game
1925 NFL = 6,605 fans per game
1926 NFL = 4,231 fans per game
1927 NFL = 7,737 fans per game
1928 NFL = 7,864 fans per game
1929 NFL = 7,811 fans per game
The League in 1929 had 12 teams. The 12 franchises still played a variety of schedules. Because of the state of Pennsylvania Blue Laws, the Frankford Yellow Jackets played 19 games- playing both on Saturdays and Sundays. The Chicago Bears and New York Giants played 15 games; the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cardinals each played 13 games; the Providence Steam Roller and Orange (NJ) Tornadoes played 12 games; the Staten Island Stapletons and Minneapolis Redjackets played 10 games; the Buffalo Bisons played 9 games; the Boston Bulldogs played 8; and the Dayton Triangles played 6 games- losing all of them.
The level of competition in the NFL in 1929 had your “haves” and “have-nots.” The “have-nots” or awful teams included the Dayton Triangles (0-6), Minneapolis Redjackets (1-9), Buffalo Bisons (1-7-1), and the Orange Tornadoes (3-5-4). Those four teams combined to win just 5 games, although the Tornadoes did defeat Boston twice and forced 4 ties.
The second tier of teams would include the usually tough Chicago Bears (4-9-2) who suffered their first losing seasons in ten years under co-coaches George Halas and Dutch Sternaman. While the Providence Steam Roller, who won the 1928 NFL Championship, took a step back with a 4-6-2 record. The Staten Island Stapletons played competitively with fullback Ken Strong but finished only 3-4-3. The Boston Bulldogs played tough, but only played 8 total games (4-4-0).
The upper tier of teams included the Green Bay Packers (12-0-1), the New York Giants (13-1-1), the Frankford Yellow Jackets (10-4-5) and the Chicago Cardinals (6-6-1). Will focus on the four upper-tier teams for the MVP of 1929.
Low scoring was the norm in the NFL in 1929, as the League played 71 league games, including 10 tie games (six of those were 0-0 games); as well as 41 shutouts (out of 71 games), which was 57% of the games in 1929.
The Draft was still a few years away so players were still free to join whatever team they wanted.
During the summer the NFL saw a few big names return to the field and a few more change teams. In Chicago, both the Bears and Cardinals added All-Time greats to their rosters. George Halas brought back Red Grange to help sell tickets. Not to be outdone the Cardinals brought fullback Ernie Nevers out of retirement. After sitting out the 1928 season to coach at his alma mater, Stanford, Nevers gave the Cardinals a big drawing card to battle the Bears. Late in the season, he would show no mercy in helping defeat the Bears.
In July of 1929, New York Giants owner Tim Mara wanted a star player to lead his team and help sell tickets. He wanted Benny Friedman of the Detroit Wolverines. So, Mara decided to purchase the entire Wolverines squad, a 3rd place team in 1928, to get his man. Friedman quickly became the Giants’ best player, as well as the gate attraction Mara was seeking. The Giants would be contenders all season and Freidman’s passing would catapult him to the top of the MVP race.
In small-town Green Bay, coach Curly Lambeau was building a team that would dominate the NFL for the next three years. Lambeau already had a stacked roster that included All-Pro halfback Verne Lewellen, quarterback Red Dunn, end Lavvie Dilweg, rugged fullback Bo Molenda, and veteran center “Jug” Earpe. He then added three key newcomers, tackle Cal Hubbard (from the New York Giants), guard Mike Michalske (from the New York Yankees) and the versatile Johnny “Blood” McNally (from the Pottsville Maroons). All three would eventually end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
|Verne Lewellen, Packers, Halfback |
(Color Image by PFJ)
Since the NFL didn’t keep statistics until 1932, we don’t have complete stats for each category.
PassingBenny Friedman of the Giants had a career year in 1929. He played in all 15 games and threw 20 touchdown passes- an NFL record surpassing the previous mark of 11 set by himself in 1927. This record would last until 1942 when Cecil Isbell of the Packers threw 24. Red Dunn of the Packers was tied with Ernie Nevers of the Cardinals for 2nd in the league with 6 TD passes, while Verne Lewellen of the Packers and Walt Homer of the Bears were next with 4.
Benny Friedman was by far the best passer in the NFL in 1929 and had his best season of his 8-year career.
|Benny Friedman, Giants, Quarterback|
(Color Image by PFJ)
Because Friedman tossed 20 touchdowns the New York Giants receivers dominated the receiving categories. All-Pro end Ray Flaherty also had his best year as a pro. His 8 receiving touchdowns led the NFL in 1929 and were a career-high. His teammates Len Sedbrook (6) and Hap Moran (5) were 2nd and 3rd in the league in receiving TDs. Gibby Welch of the Providence Steam Roller was 4th with 4, and the Packers Lavvie Dilweg and Ed Kotel were tied with the Bears’ Luke Johnsos, the Yellow Jackets’ Ed Halicki, and the Bisons’ Swede Hagberg with 3.
In a League that featured more running than passing, the NFL saw some great rushing performances in 1929. The Chicago Cardinals All-Pro fullback Ernie Nevers led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 12. Tony Latone of the Boston Bulldogs rushed for 9 TDs in 8 games, but six of his scores came against weaker opponents, Dayton, Buffalo and Orange.
But it was unheralded Tony Plansky of the New York Giants who crashed the rushing party. Plansky, a former Georgetown football star, was a 3-time National Decathlon Champion from 1925-1927. A clerical mix-up kept him off the 1928 Olympic team. In the fall of 1929 the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder was a 29-year-old rookie halfback with the New York Giants. Giving balance to the Giants passing game with Friedman, Plansky scored 9 total TDs (8 rushing, 1 receiving) in 1929.
|Tony Plansky, Giants, Halfback |
(Color Image by PFJ)
Even with the low-scoring games, a few players put up fantastic scoring seasons. The Packers All-Pro halfback Verne Lewellen scored 8 touchdowns in three different ways- rushing (6), receiving (1) and interception return (1). The versatile Lewellen would spend most of the time at his halfback spot, but Lambeau also used him to replace Red Dunn at quarterback.
The Giants trio of Len Sedbrook (11), Tony Plansky (9) and Ray Flaherty (8) combined for an obscene 28 touchdowns. It’s hard to distinguish either of the three, as all of them were highly productive in contributing to the New York Giants scoring a League-high 312 points. Only the 1924 Frankford Yellow Jackets, who scored 326 points in 14 games, had scored more points in an NFL season. It wasn’t until over a decade later with the 1941 Chicago Bears, who scored 396 in 11 games, would top the 1929 Giants.
But it was the bruising fullback of the Chicago Cardinals, Ernie Nevers who would end up on top as the NFL’s leading scorer in 1929. Nevers scored 12 touchdowns- all rushing- while kicking 1 field goal and 10 extra points. Despite all of the points on the scoreboard, Nevers could’ve been better. He only converted 10 of 20 extra points, plus most of his touchdowns scored came in two games.
|Ernie Nevers, Cardinals, Fullback|
(Color Image by PFJ)
On Nov. 24th Nevers scored 3 rushing touchdowns against lowly Dayton, then followed it up four days later on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 28th) by scoring his incredible 6 rushing TDs against the Chicago Bears. In that game, Nevers kicked 4 extra points to tally an NFL-record 40 points in one game. Still an NFL record.
So, his 85 points in 1929 could’ve been more, as Nevers only scored a TD in five of his team’s 13 games.
1929 NFL Scoring
Ernie Nevers, C. Cardinals
85 points (12 TDs, 1 FGs, 10 XPs)
Len Sedbrook, New York
66 points (11 TDs)
Tony Plansky, New York
62 points (9 TDs, 2 FGs, 2 XPs)
Tony Latone, Boston
54 points (9 TDs)
Ray Flaherty, New York
49 points (8 TDs, 1 XP conversion)
6) Verne Lewellen, Green Bay 48 points (8 TDs)
Two Teams on a Collison Course
The 1929 NFL season came down to two great teams and one big game.
Early on the race for the NFL title was between two teams, the Green Bay Packers who had never won an NFL Championship since joining the NFL in 1921, and the New York Giants who had won the NFL title in 1927. After the championship in ’27 Giants owner Tim Mara had gone through a tough 4-7-2 campaign. So, he fired Earl Potteiger and replaced him with Roy Andrews. He then added quarterback Benny Friedman to a squad that had tackle Steve Owen, end Ray Flaherty, and halfback Hap Moran. Mara then added backs Tony Plansky and Len Sedbrook, who had played for the Detroit Wolverines with Friedman in 1928. The two new backs made an immediate impact.
In their first five games the Giants outscored their opponents 77-9 while going 4-0-1- which included a 32-0 shellacking of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, where Freidman threw 3 touchdown passes. Once the calendar turned to November the Giants didn’t slow down. They crushed their next four opponents- the Bears twice, Buffalo and Orange- by a combined score of 127-20. During that stretch Freidman threw 8 touchdowns, while Plansky and Flaherty had 4 TDs, and Sedbrook had 3 scores. In their first nine games the Giants were unbeaten at 8-0-1 and had scored 204 points- averaging 22.6 points per game- tops in the NFL. They were playing like the best team in the League. Not so fast, one other team was even better.
The Green Bay Packers had entered the NFL in 1921 and their best finish was a runner-up spot in 1927 to the big city New York Giants. The Packers had a complete team in the first two months of the season. In their first nine games they outscored their opponents 128-16, averaging 14.2 points per game, while only giving up 2 touchdowns in the first nine games. Their defense was the best in the NFL, led up front on the line by Mike Michalske and Cal Hubbard. But unlike the Giants, who seemed to be blowing teams out, the Packers just wore their opponents down:
On October 27th the Packers played their toughest game. At Comiskey Park in Chicago the Cardinals gave the Pack all they could handle. Ernie Neves pounded the ball up the middle and tried to keep the ball away from Green Bay. But Verne Lewellen went head-to-head with Nevers and out-did him punting the ball. In the 2nd quarter, Lewellen scored on a 15-yard TD run to give the Packers a 7-0 lead which lasted into the 4th quarter. Late in the game, Nevers tossed a 29-yard scoring strike to end Chuck Kassel. It looked like the game would be tied but Nevers’s extra point tried sailed to the left of the uprights. The Packers came away with a big 7-6 victory.
Three weeks later the Packers defeated the Cardinals again, 12-0, to set up the game of the year in the NFL.
|Green Bay Press-Gazette headline|
(Courtesy, Green Bay Press-Gazette)
Game of the Year
On November 24th the Green Bay Packers, undefeated at 9-0, faced off against the New York Giants, unbeaten at 8-0-1. 25,000 fans filled up the Polo Grounds in New York to witness the game of the year. Curly Lambeau played “Iron Man” football, making only one substitution late in the 4th quarter. His starting eleven men would play their best game of the season.
In the first quarter, the Packers struck first. After forcing a fumble by Tony Plansky the Packers marched 30 yards to an early touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The Giants responded with a Friedman TD pass to Plansky, but the missed extra point made it 7-6.
Throughout the game, the punting of Verne Lewellen kept the Giants away from the Packers end zone. According to the play-by-play of the Green Bay Press-Gazette Lewellen punted 7 times for 354 yards- an average of 50.5 yards per punt. He had long punts of 63, 65 and 75 yards.
Heading into the 4th quarter the game was still 7-6. The Packers then took control of the game for the final time. In punt formation, Verne Lewellen took the snap, but instead of punting he tossed a pass to Johnny “Blood” McNally who scampered for 26 yards for a first down at the Giants 43-yard line. Then halfback Herdis Mccrary tossed a strike to Lewellen to the Giants 16-yard line. A few plays later fullback Bo Molenda scored on a short TD run. Now trailing 14-6 the Giants looked to Freidman to move the ball. Instead, the Packers stingy defense came up big. Jug Earpe intercepted Friedman to set up the final blow. Johnny Blood scored the final touchdown to give the visiting Packers a 20-6 victory.
Both teams would finish the season strong with neither losing a game. On the weekend of December 7-8th both teams played tough opponents. On Saturday (Dec. 7th) the Giants defeated the Frankford Yellow Jackets on the road, 12-0, behind a Benny Friedman TD run. The next day in the re-match with the Yellow Jackets at the Polo Grounds the worn-down Giants played better, crushing Frankford 31-0, as Friedman threw a TD pass to Flaherty, while Plansky threw 2 TD passes and Sedbrook scored two. On that same day, the Packers dismantled the Chicago Bears 25-0 at Wrigley Field. Verne Lewellen ran for one TD and threw for one as he guided the Pack to an unbeaten season at 12-0-1.
On the final weekend of games (Dec. 14th) the Giants completed their season with a 14-9 victory over the Bears. Freidman had one TD run and then threw a TD pass late in the 4th quarter to Len Sedbrook to clinch the win- as the New York squad finished with a 13-1-1 record. Their only blemish was the Nov. 24th loss to the Packers.
Curly Lambeau and his Packers were champions of the NFL in 1929, giving the city of Green Bay its first ever NFL Championship.
|1929 Green Bay Packers Team Photo|
1929 MVP Race
As for the MVP race of 1929 it comes down to a few candidates.
The Green Bay Packers had the best team all year. Quarterback Red Dunn finished 2nd in the NFL in TD passes with 6 (tied with Ernie Nevers) but was far behind the great Benny Friedman. The toughness of guard Mike Michalske and tackle Cal Hubbard helped guide a defense that allowed only 22 points all season. They surrender only 3 touchdowns all season.
The New York Giants had several men in the race for MVP. End Ray Flaherty led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 8. Halfback Len Sedbrook led the team with 11 total touchdowns (6 receiving; 4 rushing; 1 interception return). He finished 2nd in the NFL in scoring with 66 points. Sedbrook finishes 5th in the MVP voting.
Cardinals fullback Ernie Nevers might’ve been the best player in the NFL. He finished 1st in the NFL in rushing TDs with 12 and 1st in the NFL in scoring with 85 points. But most of his scoring came in two games; 6 TDs against the Bears and 3 TDs against a terrible Dayton Triangles team. Plus, he only made half his extra points (10 of 20) and he was outplayed by other MVP candidates in 1929. On Oct. 27th his extra point missed cost his team a 7-6 loss to the Packers, while on Nov. 17th in the rematch with the Packers, Verne Lewellen outplayed him in a 12-0 loss.
Ernie Nevers finishes 4th in the MVP voting.
Tony Plansky of the New York Giants came out of nowhere to have a career year in his first season in the NFL. Plansky had 9 total touchdowns (8 rushing, 1 receiving) to finish 3rd in the NFL in scoring with 62 points (he kicked 2 XPs). In back-to-back games against the Providence Steam Roller (Oct. 27th) and the Chicago Bears (Nov. 3), Plansky scored 4 touchdowns to help the Giants to victory. On December 1st Plansky scored a rushing TD in the 4th quarter to tie the game at 21-21 against the Chicago Cardinals. Then with five seconds left he kicked the game-winning 42-yard field goal to keep the Giants title hopes alive.
Tony Plansky finishes 3rd in the MVP voting.
Now we're down to two players. Benny Friedman of the New York Giants and Verne Lewellen of the Green Bay Packers.
Benny Friedman had a career year with 20 touchdown passes. He also had 2 rushing TDs and made 20 of 32 extra-point kicks. He guided his team to a nearly perfect record, 13-1-1, but in the biggest game of the year, he was throttled by the Packers defense with just one TD pass (to Plansky) in the 20-6 loss on Nov. 24th.
Packers halfback Verne Lewellen had an outstanding season doing everything. He finished tied for 4th in the NFL in rushing TDs with 6; finished 3rd in the league in passing TDs with 4; he caught one TD pass; and had one interception return for a TD on defense. His 48 points scored was 6th in the League.
Lewellen was also one of the best punters in the NFL. He performed his best in big games, and no other performance was better than the battle against the New York Giants on Nov. 24th at the Polo Grounds. In the game of the year Lewellen threw a TD pass, consistently booted 60 and 70-yard punts to pin the Giants- and fellow MVP candidate Benny Friedman back- as well as make a few big catches to led to another score in the 20-6 victory. After the game George W. Calhoun of the Green Bay Press-Gazette wrote of Lewellen:
“Every time Lew would boot the ball, a chorus of oh’s would re-echo back and forth across the Polo Grounds and even a strong pro-Giants partisan on the loudspeaker had to admit that the ‘lawyer guy’ from Wisconsin had an educated hoof and then some.”
Lewellen was the best player on a team that went unbeaten at 12-0-1.
Verne Lewellen is your 1929 NFL MVP.
|Verne Lewellen, Packers, Halfback|
(Color Image by PFJ)
1929 NFL MVP
Verne Lewellen, Green Bay Packers, Halfback*
Benny Friedman, New York Giants, Quarterback
Tony Plansky, New York Giants, Halfback
Ernie Nevers, Chicago Cardinals, Fullback
Len Sedbrook, New York Giants, Halfback
*Note- Lewellen wins back-to-back Pro Football Journal MVP Retroactive honors with the one in 1930.