Tuesday, April 14, 2020

1948 NFL Season in Review

by Andy Piascik
The 1948 season saw the continued great play of the Cardinals and Eagles, the two teams that faced off in the previous year’s Championship Game. Both teams were even better and played again for NFL supremacy in a title game more memorable for the conditions it was played in than for anything that happened on the field.

Passing numbers were down slightly from the year before but were still far and away the second-highest in all categories in NFL history to that point. That was a trend that would continue as passing attempts, completions, touchdowns and yards per game would never again be as low as in 1946. Greater emphasis on the pass was intertwined with rule changes regarding substitutions that moved pro football further toward a full two-platoon system. Some players continued to play and even shine on both sides of the ball, but more became specialists on either offense or defense.

Directly related to the growing popularity of the passing game was a rise in scoring. In fact, the 46.5 points scored per game in 1948 were the highest in NFL history and remained so until 2013. The Eagles, Bears and Cardinals, the league’s three best teams, all averaged over 30 points a game.
Continued Difficult Financial Times

Most NFL teams continued to lose money in 1948 because of competition with the All-America Football Conference for players. The players, on the other hand, saw a slight spike in salaries for the third year in a row in large part because of the competition between the two leagues. With 18 teams in the two leagues for the third year in a row, there were also more players employed by major league football than ever before. 

The league-wide financial woes were exacerbated by an end to a brief postwar attendance surge. There had been a slight drop from an all-time high of 31,493 per game in 1946 to 30,624 in 1947, but the far larger decline of over 5,000 per game to 25,421 in 1948 was of much greater concern. Average attendance would drop another 2,200 per game in 1949 by which point virtually every team in both leagues was losing money.

On the bright side, the Rams were firmly established in Los Angeles. Attendance for home games was better than it had ever been during the team’s tenure in Cleveland even as the Rams battled the AAFC Dons for the attention of Angeleno football fans. And the continued outstanding play of the Eagles and Cardinals saw those two teams join the long successful Bears in playing before consistently large home crowds.

A Flop in Boston
In contrast to Los Angeles, the NFL’s second foray into Boston was proving a failure as the Yanks had far and away the lowest home attendance in the league. We will never know if the results would have been different had the Yanks been a more competitive team or if owner Ted Collins had kept the franchise in place for a longer time. Whether they played on Thursday night, Friday night or Sunday afternoon, the Yanks simply did not arouse the interest of enough fans. They averaged fewer than 12,000 spectators for six home dates with a high of 18,048 who came out to Fenway to see the Bears administer a drubbing to the home team.

At season’s end, the five-year life of the Boston Yanks was at an end. Collins moved the franchise to New York in 1949, secured dates at the Polo Grounds and re-named the team the Bulldogs. New York was where Collins wanted to be all along but he would find no more success there than in Boston. By the time he threw in the towel at the end of the 1951 season, the team had played only three seasons in New York.

Unlike the Cardinals and Eagles, the Steelers did not continue the success they had in 1947. Instead, they reverted to form and finished 4-8 without ever being in the race in the East. Pittsburgh’s fall off may have been in part because of its continued adherence to the single wing. While some teams stuck with the single wing, more were using the T-formation and few that stuck with the single wing including the Steelers were having much success.
Rough Going in Two League Bastions

Two long successful franchises struggled in 1948. The Giants, champions of the East just two years before, finished 4-8 and also were never a factor. The Packers fell further from the heights of a championship in 1944 and finished 3-9.

The decline in Green Bay and the consequent drop in attendance would soon provoke a financial crisis. Eventually, the team that plays in by far the smallest of the NFL’s cities was able to secure enough public investment to weather the crisis. Seventy-two years later, the Packers remain the only publicly-owned team of any in the four major sports.

The Redskins rebounded from a poor season in 1947 to go 7-5 and remain in contention in the East until late November. The Eagles thoroughly outclassed Washington in their two head-to-head games by 45-0 and 42-21, however, and the Redskins faded badly after winning six of their first eight. The Eagles were just too strong on both sides of the ball and finished with a points differential of 18.3 per game that is the eighth-best in NFL history.

The Bears were also very strong on both sides of the ball and posted a per-game points differential that was actually better than the champion Eagles at 18.7, the sixth-best in NFL history. Undisciplined play hurt the Bears, however, as they finished second in penalty yards and first by a wide margin in penalty yards differential. It’s not much consolation that the 1948 Bears are arguably the best second-place team in league history.

In keeping with his preference for marquee inter-conference match-ups, Commissioner Bert Bell scheduled Eastern power Philadelphia to play the Bears and Cardinals, the two best teams in the West. The scheduling proved fortuitous as the two games were among the best of 1948. And while the faces had changed slightly, the NFL continued to be a distinctly two-tier entity as the Eagles, Bears and Cardinals were by far the three best teams in the league. The Bears and Cards would wage a second consecutive scintillating race but none of the other teams in the West were remotely close. And while the Redskins pushed the Eagles for two-thirds of the season, they were a distant second best in the East by season’s end.

The Bonus Draft Pick
The bonus pick in the college draft, inaugurated in 1947, went to the Redskins. The bonus pick was based on one team’s name being drawn by lot each year and resulted in that team having the first overall selection in the draft, with the proviso that each team would get the bonus pick only once. It lasted for twelve years. The Bears had been the recipients of the first bonus pick the year before and selected Bob Fenimore. Washington used the pick in 1948 to select back Harry Gilmer of Alabama.
Ram Horns
Fred Gehrke and his hand-painted logo on helmet
Los Angeles halfback Fred Gehrke, an art major in college, painted ram horns on his helmet one day and the effect was electric. Gehrke’s Ram teammates and Los Angeles owner Dan Reeves liked the look so much that Reeves paid Gehrke to paint horns on all of the team’s helmets, and the Rams became the first pro team to break from the traditional blank look. The Rams have changed the shade of their blue and gold colors several times over the decades and even switched to blue and white for a while but the design of the horn remained just as it was in Gehrke’s time until the hideous, unpopular makeover discussed recently at this website.

Over the next 13 years, other teams would add a logo or lettering until by 1961, all NFL teams except the Browns had some kind of design on their helmets. The helmet designs would become as distinctive as, and in some cases more distinctive than, the team colors or names. Designs on helmets spread to colleges, high schools and other segments of organized football until most teams at all levels had them. 
Steve Van Buren
Individual Excellence
Steve Van Buren rushed for a league-leading 945 yards and became the first player in league history to win three rushing titles. He also was again named to the first team of all of the All-Pro teams. Pat Harder led the league in scoring by a wide margin and finished sixth in rushing. He, too, made First team on all the major All-NFL teams and was named Most Valuable Player by the United Press, the only known MVP or Player of the Year award awarded that year.
Pat Harder, Cardinals—NFL Player of the Year
Tackle Dick Huffman had an outstanding season in his second year with the Rams and made First-team on virtually all of the All-Pro teams. Washington defensive back Don Sandifer established new NFL records with 13 interceptions and 258 interception return yards. As the NFL’s three best teams, the Eagles, Cardinals and Bears were well-represented on the All-Pro teams.
Charlie Trippi, Cardinals
In addition, to Van Buren and Harder, those included Al Wistert and Pete Pihos of the Eagles, Mal Kutner, Buster Ramsey and Charlie Trippi of the Cards, and Bulldog Turner and Ray Bray of the Bears.
Kenny Washington
Players of note who played their last games in 1948 were Bill Paschal, Marshall Goldberg, Len Younce, and Dick Todd. Halfback Kenny Washington of the Rams also retired after three seasons. Football fans will long wonder what kind of career Washington might have had had he been allowed to play in the NFL in 1940 rather than having to wait until 1946. By that time, he was 28 and playing on two bad knees. Washington will never achieve the iconic status of Jackie Robinson but he will certainly be remembered as one who struck a small but not insignificant blow against ignorance and intolerance.

Games of Note
September 24th at Comiskey Park (25,875): Cardinals 21 Eagles 14
A Friday night game under the lights pitted the two teams that played in the Championship Game the previous December and the result was the same. The Cardinals shot out to an early 14-0 lead and then scored the winning touchdown with four minutes remaining after the Eagles had rallied to tie the score at 14-14. Chicago end Mal Kutner had a big day with two long touchdown receptions.

Tragedy struck several hours after the game when Cardinals’ tackle Stan Mauldin collapsed in the team’s locker room and died. The cause of death was a heart attack and occurred after Mauldin had played most of the game against the Eagles. Mauldin was 27 and had been a member of the Cardinals since 1946.

October 24th at Shibe Park (36,227): Eagles 12 Bears 7
The Bears came in 4-0 and all of their victories had been impressive including one over the Cardinals that proved to be the Cards only loss of the regular season. The Eagles had started the season slowly but this win was their third of eight straight and improved their record to 3-1-1. Philadelphia did not lose again until after they had clinched the title in the East.

As befitting teams that were far and away the two best defensively in the league, the game was a slugfest where yards, first downs and points were difficult to come by. Both offenses were also hindered by rain that fell throughout and was quite heavy at times. Philadelphia’s Cliff Patton kicked a field goal in the fourth quarter that broke a 7-7 tie and the Eagles added a safety in the final seconds by sacking Sid Luckman in the Chicago end zone.

November 21st at Shibe Park (37,059): Eagles 42 Redskins 21
The Redskins hung close to Philadelphia through eight games but they were no match for the Eagles, who won their seventh straight. Philadelphia took command early by scoring the first 21 points of the game. After the Redskins rallied with two touchdowns, the Eagles scored two more of their own in the third quarter to basically put the game away at 35-14.

Steve Van Buren had one of the best games of his career as he rushed for 171 yards. That was not even half of the team’s rushing total as the Eagles gained an unbelievable 376 yards on the ground, averaging a robust 6.3 per carry in so doing. All told, Philadelphia outgained Washington, 575-254, and had 28 first downs to 10 for the Redskins. There were still three games remaining but the Eagles, who improved to 7-1-1, made it resoundingly clear that they were the best team in the East as they increased their lead to one and a half games over Washington, who fell to 6-3.

December 12th at Wrigley Field (51,283): Cardinals 24 at Bears 21
For the second year in a row, supremacy in the West came down to a regular-season finale between the two teams from Chicago in a game that was as exciting and dramatic as any in 1948. Both teams went in at 10-1 and, as was the case throughout the season, the Bears flashed a great deal of offense as they gained 462 yards, 150 more than the Cardinals. But, as previously mentioned, another theme all year for the Bears was sloppy and undisciplined play, and they amassed 91 penalty yards to only 24 for the Cards while turning the ball over five times, to just two for the South Siders.

The Bears scored first and built their lead to 21-10 with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals rallied and got rushing touchdowns from Charlie Trippi and Elmer Angsman to win, with Angsman’s game-winning score set up by a Vince Banonis interception that he returned 24 yards. The Bears reached the Cardinals’ 15-yard line late in the game but John Cochran intercepted a Sid Luckman pass in the end zone to seal the matter.

Just like the 1947 finale, the Cardinals had triumphed on the Bears’ home field. They undoubtedly would have preferred to have done so at Comiskey in front of their home fans but there was also likely something special about winning in Wrigley again against a foe that had beaten them so often and which was the undisputed top team in Chicago for so long.

For the Bears, it was a second straight bitter, season-ending defeat and an end to a truly great season. They won games in 1948 by scores of 45-7, 42-21, 28-0, 35-14, 51-17, 48-13 and 42-14 and, the Cardinals’ great record notwithstanding, had to believe they were going to avenge the loss of a year before. Instead, it was the Cards who moved on to play the Eagles for the NFL title. The Cards’ stay as an elite team would be much shorter than appeared likely at the time – it would end, in fact, after the following week’s loss in Philadelphia. For the Bears, it would be 15 long years before they would again reign supreme. There was much more heartache to come for the Bears before then, some of which was as difficult to take as the 1948 finale and a good deal of which would come at the hands of none other than the Cardinals.

NFL Championsship Game, 1948

Game of the Year, Championship Game, December 19th at Shibe Park (28,864): Eagles 7 Cardinals 0
Blizzards are rare in December in Philadelphia and rarer still before the official start of winter. But it began snowing on the morning of the Championship Game and did not stop until well after its completion by which time nearly 20 inches had fallen. The snow that piled up on the Shibe Park turf as soon as the tarp was removed and fell at a heavy rate throughout had a profound impact on the game.

According to some of the participants, including the Cardinals’ Vince Banonis in an interview with this author, there was talk beforehand of postponing the game for a day. Players on both teams apparently rejected the proposal. Banonis was quick to say that everything was fair because both teams had to endure the same conditions, this despite the fact that the Cardinals suffered a heartbreaking loss after posting an 11-1 record that is the best in their 100-year history.

Because the Cardinals’ success revolved greatly around a high-powered offense that posted the most points in the league, they may have been hurt more by the brutal conditions. They were also without injured starting quarterback Paul Christman. The Eagles, on the other hand, had Steve van Buren and he again proved himself the best running back in the league. They also had the league’s best defense that completely shut down Chicago’s offense. Van Buren and his mates, meanwhile, piled up 225 rushing yards and took advantage of a Chicago fumble late in the third quarter to produce the game’s only score.

  Philadelphia guard Bucko Kilroy recovered the Cardinals’ fumble deep in Chicago territory and the Eagles drove 17 yards on four running plays. The last of those runs was a 5-yard touchdown rush by van Buren on the third play of the fourth quarter, and the Cardinals did little the rest of the way. For the game, the Cardinals passed for only 35 yards on a mere three completions. They did rush for 96 yards but it took 34 attempts. Philadelphia had a scant seven passing yards and it required 57 rushing attempts to gain their 225 yards. Van Buren led the way with 96 while Bosh Pritchard added 67 and quarterback Tommy Thompson 50 as the Eagles won the first championship in franchise history.

The story goes that Van Buren, upon looking out his window the morning of the game, was convinced the game would not be played. He promptly went back to bed and it was not until head coach Greasy Neale telephoned to say that the game was indeed on that van Buren began the long, circuitous trek to Shibe Park. A trolley ride and transfers first to the elevated train and then to another trolley got him to within two miles of the ballpark. When the second trolley could go no further because of the snow, the great Philadelphia halfback walked the rest of the way, arriving just thirty minutes before the opening kickoff. His coach, teammates and Eagles’ fans were glad he did.

The formidable research efforts of Ken Pullis proved invaluable: first, his work for the Pro Football Researchers Association’s Linescore Project for 1948 and, second, his Progression of NFL Records which is available both from PFRA and in the two editions of The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia.


  1. One correction: Van Buren actually rushed for 945 yards that season. He was injured and sat out, I believe, 2 games (or 1 and part of another). It looks like you added his receiving numbers in with his rushing numbers in your article. Tommy Thompson also missed timed during the season; most importantly the Bears game, which was quarterbacked by Bill Mackrides.

    It was a very interesting season. The Cardinals were a big-play team and the Eagles a power football team. If not for the snow in Philadelphia during the Championship Game, I think it likely the Cardinals would have won it all. The match-up was certainly excellent.

  2. it still sticks in my craw to say it, but the 67 Colts were the best "second place" team in history, not the 48 Bears

    1. Got to feel for those guys - going undefeated through thirteen games only to lose the fourteenth and last game and miss the playoffs entirely. It's probably not a coincidence that the AFL came up with the wild card system (albeit without the catchy name) just two years later.

  3. Its cool but sad for Bears fans that the Cardinals kept Luckman from winning another championship ...