By Michael LeCompte
It’s hard to believe now amidst the hype and the NFL Networks 24/7 playoff coverage from Wild Card weekend to Super Bowl Sunday, but there wasn’t always a playoff in the NFL. Since its inception in 1920 the league champion was based on the regular season standings. The team with the best record was declared champion, simple as that, no extra games were played, no other team could challenge their record.
This system worked fine for the first twelve years of the NFL, however, in 1932 two teams ended the season with identical records. The Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans (who would later become the Detroit Lions) both finished with six wins. It was determined that a one game playoff would be held to crown a champion.
Originally set to be contested at Wrigley Field the game was ultimately moved indoors to the new Chicago Stadium on December 18, 1932, due to inclement weather. To make the game work in the arena the field was shortened to 80 yards and field goals were banned.
Playing with new rules and on a surface described as “mulch” the game, played in front of a capacity crowd of 11,198 fans, was a struggle. The Bears scored the lone touchdown that afternoon when Bronco Nagurski connected with Red Grange. Chicago would tack on a safety and won the game 9-0.
While it certainly wasn’t the most exciting game, this first, humble playoff experiment was significant for the NFL and spawned several rule changes before the 1933 season.
After Portsmouth contested the legality of Nagurski’s touchdown toss the forward pass became legal to throw from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (previously the quarterback had to drop back beyond a minimum of 5 yards).
The league also split into two divisions before the 1933 season, with the winners of each(best record not counting ties) to meet in a one game playoff to determine the league champion.
The game was also the first major football game played indoors.
The NFL naturally expanded over the years, adding teams, divisions, and merging into a 32 team marketing juggernaut, with a 12 team, month-long “second season” playoff format.
From that “mulched” arena to the frozen tundra of Green Bay and now Jerry Jones’ “Palace in Dallas” the playoffs, like the game of football itself-have evolved.