Who’s To Blame For the State of Today’s NFL? Try Sid Luckman
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.”
Football is Nietzschean, a question of finding a play or sequence that breaks the enemy. In the 1940 championship, it happened during that run. “Washington’s hopes began to dampen,” wrote Luckman. “The whole business happened in 58 seconds.”
Luckman passed for over 300 yards, completing touchdown after touchdown. Fans, who’d come to see a battle, found themselves at a clinic instead. “Everything seemed to click,” Luckman wrote. “Even a boner was good for ten yards. Coming back to the bench, I found Halas delirious with joy. After we’d rung up our fiftieth point, he began to murmur: ‘Wonder what Mr. George Preston Marshall is doin’ at this stage?’”
“With Luckman calling the plays with the genius of a clairvoyant, the Bears were a perfect football machine,” wrote Time. “By the end of the third quarter, the game had become an undignified rout.”
In the fourth, Halas told his kick holder to kill the play instead of going for the extra point. Nine footballs had already been kicked into the stands and he didn’t want to lose any more: “Who do you think pays for those balls, schmuck?”
Seventy-three to zero — it remains the most lopsided championship game in NFL history. The next morning, New York Times reporter Arthur Daley began his column, “The weather was perfect. And so were the Bears.”
In the locker room, a reporter asked Sammy Baugh what might have happened if his receiver had made that catch on the first drive. A shift in momentum can mean everything. “We would’ve lost 73 to 7,” said Baugh.
Thus began the great dynastic run of the Bears. They played 24 games without a loss: two full seasons. They won their second title in 1941, and did not lose again until December 1942, when the Redskins got revenge in the championship. Luckman had his best game in 1942 in the Polo Grounds in New York. It was Sid Luckman Appreciation Day. He threw for close to 500 yards and completed seven touchdown passes, which remains a record.
The Bears got even with the Skins in the 1943 championship, but it was a different world by then. Pearl Harbor had been attacked. As the nation’s young men went to war — Luckman joined the Merchant Marine, while Halas spent three years in the Navy — NFL rosters were increasingly filled by old-timers and has-beens.
The Monsters reassembled for one more championship run in 1946, older, slower, thicker, but determined to execute. Luckman was old Picasso, subsisting on savvy. He threw 17 touchdown passes, which led the NFL. The Bears finished 8-2-1, then played the Giants for the title. They clinched the game in an unlikely way: Sid, kneeling in the huddle, covered in grime, called his own number: “Trust me, I see something.” He had to say it twice. “Bingo, keep it.” He went to the line, looked here, looked there, took the snap, faked a handoff, a beautiful fake, jogged toward the sideline as if to say, “The old man needs a rest,” and then took off, the ball hidden beneath his arm. It was a moment before the Giants realized what was happening, that it was the ancient Luckman who had the dingus. He ran 19 yards for a touchdown, his feet getting heavier with each step. The Bears won 24-14. If the war had not intervened, that team might have won seven titles. As it is, they won four, and must be considered among the best in history.
Luckman returned for 1947, but it was a mistake. He was already a beat too slow, a season past prime. I once met a pro baseball player who, pontificating on the fate that awaits every athlete, said, “Some guys go on and on, but others just fall off the table.” Sid Luckman was a fall-off-the-table type. He was a leading quarterback right up to the moment he could no longer execute a single play. During one of his last days on the field, he took a whack to the head that knocked him insensible. That was December 14, 1947, the worst game of his career. The magic was gone. He took himself out with 12 minutes left. After that, he was old and done, just as confused as he’d been at the beginning.
He stuck around a few more years, the coach’s confidant, a monarch emeritus. When a hero gets old, he takes your youth with him. Luckman retired in 1950, but remained a figure in Chicago for decades. He was the best that had ever been, Sid the Great, who still holds just about every team passing record. If you follow the Bears, you’re familiar with the phrases “not since Luckman,” and “maybe the next Luckman.” He was part of Halas’s crew, one of the knock-around guys — Irv Kupcinet, Jack Brickhouse, Sid — sitting at a round table at the Palmer House playing cards and talking trash. He had all kinds of jobs in the years that followed, but the remainder of his life was mostly spent being Sid Luckman. That’s why it’s so hard for a star athlete to move on: No one wants you to, nor will they let you; they need you to be what you were when you were the pole star, on one knee, calling your own number: “Bingo Keep It.” Sid Luckman played football a million years ago, but died in 1998, which seems like yesterday. His ghost went out in Aventura, Florida, where the pinochle is high stakes and the pools reek of country club chlorine.
Rich Cohen’s latest book is “Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football.”