October 26, 2013

1952: Willey Has Big Sack Performance as Eagles Defeat Giants

Sacks became an officially-compiled NFL statistic in 1982, with the single-game record to date for an individual being seven by Derrick Thomas of the Chiefs in 1990. Prior to ’82, and beginning in the 1960s, team sacks were compiled (the term sack did not come into use until the ‘60s as well), and earlier, yards lost while passing were subtracted from a team’s passing yards in order to come up with a net passing yardage total, but individual records were typically a matter of conjecture (although it should be noted that some researchers are doing good work in piecing together the historical record).

On October 26, 1952, DE Norm “Wild Man” Willey of the Philadelphia Eagles (pictured above) may have set the real individual sack record, although that is by no means certain. What is known about the game on that date between the Eagles and Giants is that it was highlighted by a dominating performance by Willey and the Philadelphia defense.

The Eagles, with a 2-2 record, were 15-point underdogs coming into the contest, having lost to the Giants in Philadelphia three weeks earlier by a decisive 31-7 score. First-year Head Coach Jim Trimble had made changes heading into the season, most notably moving star offensive end Pete Pihos to defense and replacing him with Bud Grant. They lost Hall of Fame HB Steve Van Buren to a career-ending knee injury during the preseason, but had added QB Bobby Thomason, who came from Green Bay.

New York, under Head Coach Steve Owen for the 22nd year, was at 3-1 and coming off the team’s first loss the previous week. QB Charlie Conerly directed a ball control running attack led by FB Eddie Price and HB Kyle Rote, plus rookie all-purpose HB Frank Gifford, who played on defense as well. Safety Emlen Tunnell starred both on defense and as a kick returner.

There were 21,458 fans at the Polo Grounds for the rematch of the two division rivals. The Giants got the first break on the opening kickoff when it rolled free and they recovered at the Philadelphia 15. Ray Poole kicked a 30-yard field goal to start the scoring.

Late in the period, the Giants drove to the Philadelphia one yard line but the Eagles stopped them with a rugged goal line stand. The tally remained at 3-0 until, in a five-minute segment in the latter part of the second quarter, the Eagles scored twice.

First, safety Ed “Bibbles” Bawel took a Tom Landry punt and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown, regaining his footing after being hit at the New York 30. Then, getting the ball back in the closing minutes of the first half, the Eagles mounted a 72-yard scoring drive. With seven seconds left on the clock, end Bobby Walston made an impressive leaping catch in the corner of the end zone of a pass from Bobby Thomason for a 19-yard touchdown, pulling it away from defenders Harmon Rowe and Frank Gifford. Walston successfully added the extra point after each TD and the Eagles took a 14-3 lead into halftime.

The Giants started off the second half in good fashion when Gifford returned the kickoff 60 yards to the Philadelphia 32. QB Fred Benners, who took over for a battered Charlie Conerly, completed a pass to end Bob McChesney for 24 yards and a run by Kyle Rote put the ball at the two yard line. However, the Eagles defense once again pulled off a successful goal line stand and the Giants turned the ball over on downs.

The only other score of the game came a little later in the third quarter when New York LB Jon Baker blocked a punt by Adrian Burk and DE Bud Sherrod recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Poole added the extra point to make it a four-point contest, but that was it.

The Eagles physically punished the Giants, especially on defense, with a half dozen New York players sidelined by injuries. Those injured included Charlie Conerly, Eddie Price, and Frank Gifford. While the Eagles weren’t able to mount any further offense themselves, they held on to win by a final score of 14-10.

Game accounts indicated that Willey was a one-manning wrecking crew, and sportswriter Hugh Brown of the Philadelphia Bulletin credited him with an incredible 17 sacks during the course of the contest (or “dumping Charlie Conerly…while he was attempting to pass”, although Fred Benners was clearly a victim as well), including 11 in sequence. In addition to Willey, MG Bucko Kilroy and Pete Pihos had big days. Whatever the truth of the number of sacks – Willey himself years later thought it was 15, Kilroy suggested 12, and veteran pro football writer Paul Zimmerman, who was charting the game that day, gave the Eagles credit for 14 overall and Willey a total of 8 – it is clear that the Eagles had a great day defensively.

Philadelphia outgained the Giants by 225 yards to 109, with New York managing only 54 rushing yards on 34 attempts and a net of 55 passing yards thanks to 127 yards lost due to quarterbacks Conerly and Benners being tackled while attempting to throw. Interestingly, the Eagles suffered the only turnover of the game, on a fumble. Kyle Rote carried 7 times for 12 yards and Eddie Price was held to just 7 yards on 11 rushing attempts.

“I almost felt sorry for Charlie (Conerly),” said Jim Trimble later. “I remember vividly Charlie having a heck of a time just getting up. He was just mauled by Norm (Willey).”

The Eagles lost the following week at Green Bay but then reeled off three straight wins while the Giants won their next two contests but lost three of their last five games. The clubs ended up with identical 7-5 records, tying them for second place in the American Conference, a game behind the Browns.

Norm Willey’s performance against the Giants, which has taken on something  of a legendary status, was the highlight of an eight-season NFL career, all spent with the Eagles. The 6’2”, 224-pound Willey was a 13th round draft pick out of Marshall in 1950, and with his speed off the defensive line, he regularly harassed opposing quarterbacks. He was twice named to the Pro Bowl and received at least some first-team All-NFL recognition in 1953, ‘54 and ’55.