Who's To Blame For the State of Today's NFL? Try Sid Luckman

How a Brooklyn Legend Helped Create Football as We Know It

First Monster of the Midway: Before he joined the Chicago Bears, Sid Luckman was a star at Erasmus Hall High School, then at Columbia University.
AP Photos Courtesy of Rich Cohen
First Monster of the Midway: Before he joined the Chicago Bears, Sid Luckman was a star at Erasmus Hall High School, then at Columbia University.

By Rich Cohen

Published December 08, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013.
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The course of the current NFL season demonstrates the great flaw of professional football: The quarterback has become too important. Teams like Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears lose a single player — Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler respectively — and the entire season washes out. To understand how this crazy state of affairs came to be, you have to go back to the beginning, the dawn of football time, when one Chicago Czech and one Brooklyn yid teamed up to create the look of the modern NFL and establish the quarterback as we know and love and hate and desperately need him today.

Sid Luckman was a Brooklyn playground legend before he was the first modern pro quarterback, the first pocket passer, the antecedent of all those Mannings and Bradys. He was a star at Erasmus Hall High School, then at Columbia University, where George Halas, coach and owner of the Bears and a founder of the NFL, scouted him in 1938. Halas was trying to install a new offense in Chicago, the brainy T formation, which turned the QB into a coach on the field, calling plays, reading defenses, and juggling hundreds of options. In looking for a player to command the T, Halas made something like the following calculation: “Jesus Christ, the thing is so complicated, you’d need a Jew to run it!”

Luckman struggled his rookie year. and then one day, it clicked. What had been fuzzy became clear. This was the fall of 1940, and the Bears were playing Green Bay. Crouching under center, Luckman looked up and suddenly the defense opened like a book. There were the answers, all of them, right there! He could read them! He shouted a few coded words. His players shifted. He took the snap. Everything slowed; he knew where to turn, when to look. Receiver One is covered? What about Two? He’s open. I’ll throw him the ball. He’s got it. And he’s running. We’ve scored another touchdown!

The Bears got better and better. At times, they seemed unstoppable. The other players loved Luckman, this kid putting up unheard of numbers. Three hundred yards in the air. Five touchdown passes, six. After finishing 8-3, the team faced the Washington Redskins for the NFL championship game. The Skins were favored to win by 10. While the Bears were led by an untested Ivy Leaguer, the Redskins had Slinging Sammy Baugh, a lanky Texan once considered the best quarterback ever. If a writer wanted to praise Luckman, he’d call him “Halas’s answer to Sammy Baugh.”

George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Redskins, needled Halas all that week. At issue was a game the teams had played earlier in the season. The Bears were down 17-14 with less than a minute. They had the ball near the Redskins’ goal but no time-outs. Halas told guard George McAfee to fake an injury to stop the clock. The refs saw through the ruse and penalized the Bears, ensuring a Redskins victory. Halas, who insisted the injury had been real, bitched about it to anyone who would listen. “I probably used all the words I had used on the Chicago street and maybe even made up a few new ones,” he said. Marshall called Halas and his team “a bunch of crybabies.” He sent Halas a telegram when the Bears clinched their spot in the big game: “Congratulations. I hope we have the pleasure of beating your ears off next Sunday and every year to come. Justice is triumphant.”

In the locker room, Halas gave a speech organized around the hideousness of being called a crybaby: “Are we just gonna take it! Are we gonna let that c–ksucker get away with that bullshit!” As the team ran onto the field, Halas held Luckman back, and put his arm around him. He told Sid the first three plays to call: “How they react, that’s going to tell us everything we need to know.” He squeezed Sid’s shoulder, said he was proud of him, and wished him luck. The relationship between these men was coach-player in platonic form. Years later, before he died, Halas wrote Luckman a letter. They were both old men, with their glory days a million miles behind; the letter ended, “I love you with all my heart, Sidney. My friend, you have a spot in my heart that NO ONE else can claim.”

Sammy Baugh marched his team down field on the first drive. There was something romantic about him — the slow walk, his laconic way. He never got flustered. He was relaxed when he threw. Whereas Luckman released from his shoulder, Baugh extended his arm to its apex, releasing at 12 o’clock, a premonition of the over-the-top style of the moderns. He got his team into Bears territory. On one play, he eluded the rush and found a receiver in the end zone. He hit him in the chest, but the pass was dropped. It would be the Redskins’ best chance of the day.

A few minutes later, the Bears had taken over and Luckman was thinking through Halas’s plays. For a quarterback, a lot of any game was played in his head, a stream of consciousness that goes like this: “First I do this, which will make them do that, but if he does that, I’ll go here, which will make him go there and do that, in which case I will do this, unless, of course, they do that, in which case I’ll go come back with this, then look for McAfee, and if he’s covered…”

The early break came on the ground. One of the innovations of the modern T was trickery, fakes and feints that disguised even a basic play; half the time, you didn’t know who had the ball. Sid called it in the huddle: “Spread left 0, scissors 46.” He hiked, faked right, then tossed to fullback Bill Osmanski, who got tangled up in the line, broke free, and then made it outside, where a hole opened. He went 68 yards for a touchdown, a perfect run, but it was the block that opened the hole that people remembered. For years, it was the most famous block in NFL history. It was made by George Wilson, who, according to Luckman, “coming from his right end position, dashed at an angle toward [Omanski’s] line of flight. Around mid-field… he hurled his body, at full speed, into Malone of Washington, who bounced back into his partner, Justice, and the two of them somersaulted helplessly over the sideline.” In other words, one guard took out two tacklers — in bowling, they call this picking up the 7-10 split. “Watching it,” Luckman went on to write in his 1949 book “Luckman at Quarterback,” “I assured myself that I’d seen the most wicked block perpetuated by man or beast.”


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