The league was clearly divided between haves and have-nots when the 1947 season began. The haves were the Bears, Packers, Giants, and Redskins while the have nots were everybody else. Those four teams had combined for 16 of 18 championships since 1929 and a total of 26 of the possible 28 Championship Game appearances since the title game’s inception in 1933.
Among the have-nots, the Cardinals, Lions, and Rams had each won one championship, the Cardinals way back in 1925, while the Eagles, Steelers, and Yanks had never so much as appeared in a title game. However, the Steelers, Rams and especially the Cardinals and Eagles, were on the rise. By the end of the 1947 season, the era of dominance by the Bears, Packers, Giants, and Redskins would be at an end.
There were other changes in the NFL. The league increased its season from 11 games in 1946 to 12, where it would remain until 1961. Television was on its way to becoming a cultural staple and, while there were still only a small number of sets in the country compared to what was just around the corner, team owners grappled with how readily to make games available on the new medium.
Players continued to return from the military. That included both NFL veterans and collegians who had been drafted by both the NFL and the military and had gone straight from campus to the service. As a result, the number of available major league-quality players rose, though with the existence of the AAFC that talent was now spread between 18 major league teams.
On the field, the single-platoon system was nearing its end as owners and coaches saw definite advantages to two platoons and looser substitution rules. An increase in passing and the possibilities of a more exciting, wide-open game directly related to the new thinking. Why risk exhaustion and injury to offensive stars like Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman by forcing them to play defense, too? The growing popularity of the T-formation and the pocket passer were also directly related to these changes. Other offensive alignments like the single wing, the A-formation and various offshoots of each were still in use but they were in decline and would essentially be gone from the NFL in six or seven years.
There were also changes in grandstands around the league as 1947 was the third and, as it turned out, final year of a brief post-war attendance boom. Per game attendance was 30,624, down slightly from 1946 but still dramatically higher than the 20,393 average in 1944. The decline would be much sharper the next two years and attendance would not again reach the 1947 average, even though peace with the AAFC was achieved in 1950, until 1955.
Finally, after re-integration in 1946, Kenny Washington was the only black player in the NFL in 1947 after Woody Strode left to play in Canada. Change would come at a deplorably glacial pace as the NFL lagged far behind the AAFC during the rest of that league’s brief existence, passing on or being outbid in 1947 for Buddy Young, John Brown and Horace Gillom, among others. Black players would become an increasing presence in the NFL each season thereafter, soon making up many of the league’s best players, but 1947 marked one last shameful step backwards.
A Record Smashing Season
Partly as a result of some of the changes mentioned above, many new individual, team and league records were set on offense in 1947. League-wide, new marks were set for most points, most total yards, most rushing yards and most passing yards, both in sheer numbers and on a per-game basis. The Bears and Redskins established new records for most total yards and most passing yards, respectively, both in absolute numbers and prorated per game.
Individually, Washington quarterback Sammy Baugh set new records for most pass attempts, most completions and most passing yards, again in both absolute totals and prorated per game, and he also added to the many career records he already held. On the rushing side, Philadelphia’s Steve van Buren established new highs for most attempts and most yards, although only the yards were a record on a per-game basis.
Windy City Battle in the West
For much of 1947, it looked like tradition would hold in the Western Division as the Bears ran off eight straight wins after losing their first two games to move into first place. Two recent NFL champs, the Packers (1944) and Rams (1945), began the season well with 4-1 and 3-1 starts, respectively, but each slumped badly at mid-season as their schedules became more difficult. Still, both teams showed flashes of their recent brilliance. The Rams overwhelmed the eventual champion Cardinals, 27-7, and also inflicted serious damage to the Bears (see below) while the Packers also defeated the Bears and won two games against the Rams.
The second contender in the West besides the Bears was Chicago’s other team, the Cardinals, whose Dream Backfield powered the Cards to far and away their best season since 1925. (1) Originally made up of Pat Harder, Marshall Goldberg, Paul Christman and Elmer Angsman in 1946, the Dream Backfield in 1947 was slightly different with the addition of Charlie Trippi and the move of Goldberg to defense. The Cardinals defeated the Bears early and, at 7-3, were within striking distance of the first place 8-2 Bears as the season entered December, with an all-Chicago season finale looming.
The Giants Fall and the Eagles and Steelers Rise
After winning the East in 1946, the eighth time they had done that in 14 seasons, the Giants fell precipitously to 2-8-2 and last place in 1947. While the Giants declined in pretty much every area, it was especially the case in their running game and their rush defense. The suspension of Frank Filchock, their leading rusher and passer the year before, was a significant loss. (2) New York was never a factor in the division race and didn’t so much as win its first game until November 30th.
There are a number of eerie parallels between the 1947 Giants and their 1964 team, right down to their final records of 2-8-2 and 2-10-2. Both played in the NFL title game the previous December, battling hard in both games against the Bears before succumbing. Both fell unexpectedly immediately after many years of success. And both remained in the wilderness for a prolonged time, at least as far as winning division or conference titles, though the Giants would bounce back sooner after the collapse of 1947 than their latter-day counterparts.
Two years removed from an Eastern Division title, the Redskins fell to 4-8 and fourth place. Their slide would be steeper and would last far longer than that of the Giants as Washington would not return to the playoffs until 1971 and would not win another championship until 1982. There were many factors for the long stretch of futility but one of note was the steadfast refusal of owner George Preston Marshall to hire black players until the federal government forced the issue in 1962. (3)
The Eagles had been in contention in several recent seasons after years as a league doormat, posting records of 7-1-2 in 1944, 7-3 in 1945 and 6-5 in 1946. They were alive until their final game in ’44 and ’45, finishing a half-game and a game out, before sliding some in 1946. Behind Steve van Buren, tackle Al Wistert and rookie end Pete Pihos, Philadelphia finally captured the Eastern crown in 1947.
The team with which the Eagles battled in the East, the Steelers, had similarly been bottom-feeders most years since joining the NFL in 1933. Led by halfback Johnny Clement, who finished second in rushing yards to van Buren, the Steelers tied the Eagles for first with their best-ever record of 8-4. Unlike Philadelphia, however, Pittsburgh was a flash in the pan and would not make another playoff appearance for 25 years.
Although far removed from contention, the fourth-year Boston Yanks had their best season with a 4-7-1 record good for third place in the East. Among their victories were a road win in Los Angeles and a 21-14 victory over the Eagles. Perhaps of greater value to owner Ted Collins, who was dying to place his team in New York’s Yankee Stadium (something that would come to pass in 1949 though at great cost), was a first-ever win against the Giants.
Games of Note
September 29th at Comiskey Park (51,123): Cardinals 31 Bears 7
It was an early-season “message” win for the 1-0 Cardinals as they announced themselves as a team to be reckoned with in a decisive victory over the 0-1 defending champions. The win in a game played before the largest crowd in Chicago pro football history to that point also gave the Cards a two-game lead after just two games. The Dream Backfield led the way as Charlie Trippi rushed for 91 yards and 7.0 a pop, Pat Harder scored a touchdown and kicked a field goal, and Paul Christman threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. In a game that was 7-7 at the half before the Cardinals pulled away, the Bears turned the ball over six times, a problem that would plague them all season.
November 16th at Comiskey Park (40,086): Cardinals 21 Packers 20
With the streaking Bears hot on their heels and every game of vital importance in such a close race, the 6-1 Cardinals staged a dramatic rally from a 20-7 fourth-quarter deficit to nip the 4-3 Packers. Pat Harder scored for Chicago on a run and Paul Christman threw two touchdown passes to Mal Kutner, the second of which proved to be the winning score. Green Bay’s Ward Cuff missed a short field goal attempt with 30 seconds remaining.
November 30th at Shibe Park (39,814): Eagles 21 Steelers 0
The 7-3 Steelers entered the game with a half-game lead and a chance to all but put away the 6-3 Eagles before a record Philadelphia crowd for pro football, but the Eagles rose to the occasion and posted a decisive shutout victory. Pittsburgh did not exactly possess a strong offense even at full strength and they were without three of their starters including Johnny Clement. The loss might have been a fatal blow to the Steelers but the Eagles were handily defeated by the Cardinals the following week and the two Pennsylvania teams would meet in a playoff on December 21st to decide the East.
December 7th at Wrigley Field (34,215): Rams 17 Bears 14
With a chance to clinch a tie in the West, the 8-2 Bears stumbled badly at home against the 4-6 Rams. Leading early by 14-0 and by 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Chicago was beaten when Red Hickey made a sensational grab of a Bob Waterfield pass for the winning touchdown. The Bears had a 480-318 edge in total yards but, as in the early season game against the Cardinals, turned the ball over six times.
December 7th at Shibe Park (34,342): Cardinals 45 Eagles 21
On the same afternoon their North Side rivals were upset by the Rams, the 7-3 Cardinals moved into a tie for first place with the Bears by decisively beating the 7-3 Eagles in a game that turned out to be a preview of the Championship Game. Philadelphia missed a chance to clinch a tie for first place. The game featured a very rare occurrence as two Cardinals each scored offensive and defensive touchdowns. Charlie Trippi scored on a run, Mal Kutner caught a touchdown pass and both men returned interceptions for scores in a fourth-quarter that featured 42 points.
December 14th at Shibe Park (24,216): Eagles 28 Packers 14
In a must-win situation against a determined foe looking to add some luster to a disappointing season, the 7-4 Eagles defeated the 6-4-1 Packers in a hotly contested regular-season finale that featured numerous penalties and several fights. Steve van Buren cracked the 1,000 yard mark and bested Beattie Feathers’ 1934 rushing record while scoring touchdowns on runs of 1, 2 and 38 yards. Cornerback Cliff Patton made a key play early when he blocked a Green Bay punt in the first quarter that set up the first score of the game, van Buren’s 1-yard touchdown.
Game of the Year, December 14th at Wrigley Field (48,632): Cardinals 30 Bears 21
The Bears had won seven championships to the Cardinals one and they held an overwhelming 35-11-6 advantage over the Cards in regular-season match-ups. The Bears had won 15 of the previous 19 games between the two and figured to do so again, especially playing at home, despite the excellent season the Cardinals were having. But the Cardinals cooked up a special play for the first snap from scrimmage and scored on an 80-yard pass en route to a shocking 27-7 halftime lead.
The game featured five long touchdowns and the benching due to ineffectiveness of the Bears legendary quarterback Sid Luckman. As they had all year, the Bears racked up lots of penalties and turnovers, categories they finished worst in in the NFL. Their league best offense again piled up yards as they outgained the Cardinals 507-329, but it was not enough to overcome all the mistakes or a spirited opponent determined to finally gain the upper hand in Chicago.
Eastern Division Playoff, December 21st at Forbes Field (35,729): Eagles 21 Steelers 0
In a game that closely resembled their match three weeks earlier, right down to the final score, the Eagles dominated the Steelers and moved on to the title game against the Cardinals. Philadelphia’s defense stifled Pittsburgh throughout, allowing just seven first downs, four completions, 52 passing yards and 154 total yards. Though themselves held to 255 total yards, the Eagles offense did enough to build a 14-0 halftime lead before Bosh Pritchard put the game away with a 79-yard punt return in the third quarter. Steve van Buren was held to 45 yards rushing and a meager 2.5 average per carry but he did catch one of Tommy Thompson’s two touchdown passes.
In one of the more exciting games in NFL title game history, the Cardinals prevailed on an icy field to claim their second championship and deny Philadelphia their first in the first Championship Game appearance for both teams. The Cardinals utilized offensive formations designed to force the Eagles to spread their defense toward each sideline and then exploited the middle. The plan worked better than hoped as Chicago ripped off two long touchdown runs by Elmer Angsman (both 70 yards) and one by Charlie Trippi (44 yards) that were three of the five long scoring plays.
The treacherous footing proved more troublesome to the two defenses as the teams combined for almost 700 yards from scrimmage. The two offenses were opposites as the Cardinals amassed 282 rushing yards and only 54 through the air while Philadelphia passed for 297 yards and a mere 60 on the ground. The Cardinals hurt themselves with 97 penalty yards, compared to 55 for the Eagles, and Philadelphia ran a remarkable 91 plays from scrimmage to only 53 for Chicago. But the Cardinals got better value from theirs as a result of their long runs and averaged 6.3 yards per play to 3.9 for the Eagles.
Van Buren was stopped cold for the second week in a row as he rushed for only 26 yards on 18 carries, though he did crack the end zone on a 1-yard run. The two other long touchdowns of the day were a 53-yard Philadelphia pass from Tommy Thompson to Pat McHugh and a 75-yard punt return by Chicago’s Trippi. Trailing 28-14, the Eagles closed to within seven points with five minutes remaining in the game. But the Cardinals proved they could grind it out as well as break the big play, and they ran out the clock without Philadelphia ever getting the ball back.
Hail and Farewell
The 1947 season marked the end of the line for some players of note including 41-year old Ken Strong, whose career stretched back to 1929; Jim Benton, an outstanding end with the Rams for nine seasons who retired as second all-time in pass receptions to Don Hutson; two-way standout Charley Brock, an especially good center; halfback Bill Osmanski, who led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie in 1939 and played on the Bears’ four championship teams of the 1940s; Ward Cuff, an 11-year veteran who led the NFL in field goals four times including in 1947, and played in four title games with the Giants including on their champion team in 1938; Ki Aldrich, who played in two title games including in 1942 when Washington bested the 11-0 Bears; and Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner and first overall draft choice in 1941 who played only two seasons with the Rams because he was busy serving as a fighter and bomber pilot during which time he survived a jungle crash en route to North Africa and being shot down over Japanese-occupied China.
Individual Seasons of Note
In addition to the accomplishments of Baugh and van Buren mentioned above, halfback Eddie Saenz of the Redskins had a busy and record-setting season as he rushed for 143 yards, caught passes for 598 yards, returned punts for 308 yards and had 797 kick-off return yards. His net 1,846 yards established a new single-season mark, as did his kick-off return total. Playing for the high-scoring Bears, Scooter McLean, meanwhile, established new records for most extra points and extra point attempts.
With Don Hutson two years retired and Jim Benton in his final season, Mal Kutner of the Cardinals and Ken Kavanaugh and Jim Keane of the Bears emerged as the NFL’s best offensive ends. Al Wistert was again one of the best, if not the best, tackle in the game, and Bill Dudley of the Lions continued to be an all-around standout at halfback, defensive back, and placekicker. Pat Harder was one of the league’s best fullbacks and also finished first in points and kicking points and tied for first in field goals.
End Don Currivan played for the Yanks, who had far and away the worst offense in the league, but he amassed 782 yards on 24 receptions for a remarkable 32.6 yard average and nine touchdowns. On the defensive side, standouts included linebackers Riley Matheson of the Rams and Buster Ramsey of the Cardinals, tackle Fred Davis of the Bears and end Larry Craig of the Packers. Frank Reagan of the Giants and Frank Seno of the Yanks had ten interceptions each and came within one of the NFL record.
The All-Pro teams selected by the major news agencies were a mix of mainstays like Bulldog Turner and newcomers like Harder. Wistert, van Buren, Kavanaugh, and Harder did best in first-team honors. Despite his great season, Sammy Baugh was surpassed by Sid Luckman of the Bears. It’s not clear what the reaction was at the time but it is certainly perplexing that Luckman got any honors over Baugh even considering that the 8-4 Bears had a better season than the 4-8 Redskins. Baugh was superior in every passing category, mostly by wide margins, and as noted above, he established several single-season NFL records. If the passer rating system that is used today is applied, Baugh scores at 92.0 to Luckman’s 67.7.
Though still thick in the financial woods because of competition with the AAFC, the NFL was arguably still in better shape at the end of 1947 than at any point since its founding. The Rams’ move to Los Angeles in 1946 was proving a success, an important and much-needed shift in the balance of power was underway as the Cardinals, Eagles, and Steelers all enjoyed the best seasons in their histories, and pro football was slowly but surely climbing the sports ladder of popularity. Radio and especially television were increasingly playing a big part in that popularity, a development that would steadily continue and ultimately push the game to heights none involved in 1947 could have imagined.
1. The Cardinals quartet was also known as the Million Dollar Backfield, though that nickname has become more closely identified with San Francisco’s 1954-56 foursome of Joe Perry, Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson.
2. Filchock was banned for not reporting that he and teammate Merle Hapes had been offered money by gamblers to make sure the underdog Giants lost by more than the 10-point betting line in the 1946 title game. He played the next seven seasons in Canada while also being reinstated by the NFL to play one game for the Colts at the end of 1950.
3. This came about because the new Washington stadium that opened in 1961, D.C. Stadium (later known as RFK Stadium), was built on federally-owned land. Marshall was given an ultimatum that his team would not be allowed to use the stadium unless he employed black players, a demand he complied with a year later.
The formidable research efforts of Ken Pullis proved invaluable: first, his work for the Pro Football Researchers Association’s Linescore Project for 1947 and, second, his Progression of NFL Records which is available both from PFRA and in the two editions of The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia.