December 10, 2015

1939: Packers Dominate Giants to Win NFL Championship

The NFL Championship game on December 10, 1939 featured a rematch of the previous year’s participants. The Green Bay Packers, top team in the Western Division, hosted the Eastern Division’s New York Giants, who had beaten them to win the title in New York in ’38.

New York, coached by Steve Owen, was especially strong on defense, having given up just 85 points in compiling a 9-1-1 record. The offense featured the running of FB Tuffy Leemans which was supplemented by the passing of QB Ed Danowski. C/LB Mel Hein was outstanding on both sides of the ball and other top linemen included end Jim Poole and guards Johnny Dell Isola and Orville Tuttle.

The Packers, under the guidance of Head Coach Curly Lambeau, had gone 9-2. End Don Hutson was the league’s top receiver with 34 catches and 846 yards, and tailbacks Arnie Herber (pictured above) and Cecil Isbell were adept at getting the ball to him. Hutson benefited from being shifted to the defensive backfield rather than playing end on defense, thus reducing wear during games and making him an even more formidable weapon than he had been in his first four years.  

There were 32,279 fans in attendance at State Fair Park, referred to informally as the Dairy Bowl, located at the Wisconsin Fairgrounds in West Allis, near Milwaukee. There was a strong wind blowing from the north, gusting to 35 mph. In the first quarter, the Giants got a break when end Jim Poole blocked a punt by Clarke Hinkle to gain possession at the Green Bay 41. However, they were unable to advance in three plays and Ward Cuff’s 42-yard field goal attempt against the wind was both wide and low.

The Packers had to punt following their ensuing series and this time Hinkle’s wind-aided kick sailed 64 yards to the New York 16. The Giants had to punt in turn and Green Bay had good field position at the New York 46. The Packers moved the ball methodically on the ground to the 21 and tailback Arnie Herber threw to end Don Hutson for 15 yards to the six. Two plays later, and with the defense concentrating on Hutson, Herber passed to end Milt Gantenbein in the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown. Paul “Tiny” Engebretsen added the extra point.

Heading into the second quarter, the visitors now had the wind at their backs. They tried to take advantage early in the period when Len Barnum tried for a 53-yard field goal, but it fell way short of the mark. The Giants again were in Green Bay territory on their next series but HB Andy Uram intercepted a pass at his own 27 to blunt the threat. Once again it was the Packers who couldn’t move the ball and New York had another shot, but Cuff’s 42-yard field goal attempt missed to the right.

The Giants came close to scoring in the last minute of the first half, but after reaching the New York nine on a pass from Ed Danowski to Tuffy Leemans that gained 37 yards, LB Charley Brock, who tackled Leemans from behind on the previous play to prevent a score, intercepted a pass to end the threat. The score remained unchanged at 7-0 at halftime.

New York still had the wind advantage in the third quarter, but had even less success. After the Giants were unable to move the ball on their first series and punted, HB Joe Laws (pictured at left) returned it 15 yards to the Green Bay 45 and the Packers drove to the New York 21 with Isbell, Hinkle, and Laws handling the bulk of the running. Engebretsen kicked a 29-yard field goal into the wind to make it a 10-0 game.

Shortly thereafter, Gantenbein intercepted a pass at the New York 37 and, three plays later, Isbell faked a run and then threw to Laws, who was wide open, for a 31-yard TD. Engebretsen again converted for a commanding Green Bay lead of 17-0.

The Packers piled it on in the fourth quarter. Following an interception by Brock that erased an opportunity for the Giants on another blocked punt, Green Bay again had the ball near midfield and Herber threw to end Harry Jacunski, who made an outstanding shoestring catch for a 31-yard gain. The drive faltered there, but Ernie Smith kicked a 42-yard field goal.

On the third play following the kickoff, LB Bud Svendsen intercepted a pass at the New York 30 and returned it 15 yards. It took just four plays for the Packers to reach the end zone as FB Ed Jankowski plunged in for a touchdown from a yard out and Smith capped the scoring with the extra point.  Green Bay won by a final score of 27-0.

The Packers led in total yards (232 to 164) and first downs (13 to 9). New York turned the ball over six times, all on interceptions, to three by Green Bay, and failed on all three of its field goal attempts while the Packers hit on two.

Arnie Herber completed 5 of 8 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown, although giving up three interceptions, while Cecil Isbell was two of two for 37 yards and a TD and also ran for 27 yards on 13 carries. Andy Uram topped the Packers with 35 rushing yards on 10 attempts. Don Hutson, who was well-covered and used as a decoy for much of the contest, caught two passes as did back Larry Craig, for 21 and 9 yards, respectively. Joe Laws and Harry Jacunski each gained a team-leading 31 yards on their lone pass receptions, with Laws scoring a touchdown. Charley Brock (pictured below) accounted for two of the defense’s six interceptions and received praise for his overall performance.

For the Giants, Ed Danowski was successful on just four of 12 throws, three of which were intercepted. QB Eddie Miller was a bit better with three completions in six attempts for 40 yards and one picked off. Tuffy Leemans led the team’s rushers with 22 yards on 12 carries and also had a 37-yard pass reception. 

It was the fifth NFL Championship for the Packers, who finished second in the Western Division with a 6-4-1 record in 1940 and were blocked by the powerful Chicago Bears until winning their next title in 1944. New York also was 6-4-1 in placing third in the Eastern Division the next year but bounced back to reach the championship game in 1941, losing to the Bears.