Distant Replay

How the greatest game in football history looks 50 years later, through the eyes of a modern NFL head coach

Illustration by Sean McCabe

Watching game film with Andy Reid, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, can make you woozy. He lounges behind the wide desk in his office, feet up, using a wireless control to freeze the image of a play on a screen at the opposite end of the room, and then starts rolling it forward and backward, forward and back, first the whole play and then only portions of it, forward and back, forward and back, until he has pieced all the moving parts together.

Also see:

Interviews: Football's Founding Fathers (September 19, 2008)
Mark Bowden discusses the legendary Giants-Colts game of 1958 and reflects on how the sport and its players have changed in the past half century.

Reid is a very big man, a former collegiate offensive lineman, and when I met him last spring, he was in full off-season mode: tan, relaxed, and draped in a colorful Hawaiian silk shirt large enough to display the entire Amazon rain forest. Reid was coming off another winning year—the Eagles had made it to the second round of the postseason playoffs just months earlier—and he was already well into his preparations for the next season. Pro football is a year-round occupation these days, so he was doing me a favor by agreeing to help me with research for my book, The Best Game Ever, an account of the celebrated 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants.

I’ve written about football in the past, but I am by no means an expert, so I had gone looking for a pro coach to help me break down film of the famous game. I live just outside Philadelphia and once covered the Eagles for the local newspaper, so I phoned Derek Boyko, the team’s affable public-relations director. Boyko warned me that the club’s assistant coaches were probably too busy, but he nevertheless agreed to ask around. He called back to say that all of the coaches, curious about the way the game was played before most of them were born, had expressed an interest. “But they need permission from Andy,” he said. “I’ll ask him when he comes back from leave in a few weeks.”

Boyko called me weeks later to say, “Andy wants to do it.”

It seemed odd at first for a pro coach to have never seen film of this historic game—a little like finding a doctor of English literature who had never read Macbeth. But success in pro football, as in any intensely competitive, constantly evolving arena, depends primarily on current intelligence: What did my opponent last do against me? What did he do last week? A pro coach is not inclined to search for what he needs in old black-and-white film. History is … well, history.

But no craftsman or professional can be completely uninterested in seeing how he measures up against past standards of excellence. How good was the game then? How capable were the players? How clever were the coaches and schemes?

The game in question defined excellence for an era. It pitted the best defense in the NFL, the Giants, against the best offense, the Colts, playing for all the marbles. It featured 17 future NFL Hall of Fame players, coaches, and owners. On the field were great athletes like Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti, Frank Gifford, Andy Robustelli, Emlen Tunnell, Rosey Grier, and Sam Huff. Coaching on the sidelines were Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry for the Giants, and for the Colts, Weeb Ewbank, the only pro coach who ever took teams from two different leagues (the NFL and the AFL) to national championships.

Reid was born in the year this game was played, and one reason he had never seen it is that the TV broadcast has been lost. But for serious study, I had wrested something even better from the archives of NFL Films: the grainy, monochrome “coaches’ film” of the game, soundless footage shot from the sidelines high over midfield, with all the time-outs, huddles, and game breaks edited out.

Instant analysis envelops pro football like a cloud, but with most plays there is no way to tell what really happened and why without a careful, slow-motion dissection of the film. Reid is one of this craft’s most successful practitioners. Even among pro coaches, he is notable for toting thick binders filled with notes and plans, and for fielding highly complex systems on both sides of the ball. Earlier in his career, he was quarterbacks coach for the Green Bay Packers, grooming Brett Favre and helping that team to a Super Bowl championship in 1997. His tenure in Philadelphia has been the most successful of any coach’s in the team’s long history: starting in 2001, he led the Eagles to four consecutive National Football Conference championship games and a Super Bowl—although, much to the consternation of long-suffering Eagles fans, he has yet to bring the Lombardi Trophy home to Philadelphia.

We watched the game in his office in the Eagles’ training complex, just a few blocks from Lincoln Financial Field, where they play. When I covered the team in the early 1990s, the Eagles’ offices, locker room, and workout facilities were housed in a few cramped, dark, damp rooms in the basement of the now-demolished Veterans Stadium. Today the team, whose worth is estimated at more than $1 billion, is housed at a state-of-the-art facility that sprawls over an area as large as a college campus.

“Okay,” he’d say, when he had examined a play from snap to tackle, “here’s what happened.” Then out would pour a detailed explication: what the offense was trying to do, how the defense was trying to stop it, the techniques (good and bad) of the various key players, the historical roots of the formations and the play’s design, and ultimately why it worked or failed, and who was responsible, either way. The wealth of information Reid gleaned from a single play reminded me of the way Patrick O’Brian’s 19th-century naval hero, Jack Aubrey, eyeballing an enemy ship during a sea chase, could read from the play of its sails and the disposition of its crew the experience, intentions, strengths, and weaknesses of his opponent.

Reid’s insight told on the first offensive play of the game. Colts coach Weeb Ewbank had designed a trick play, so secret that in his pregame meeting with his team in the visiting locker room at Yankee Stadium, he had mouthed the play call to them, fearful that the room was bugged. Observing the opening formation, Reid noted with surprise that all but one of the Colts linemen were positioned to the left of center Buzz Nutter. “This is a completely unbalanced formation,” he told me. “You can’t even do that today.” The rules would no longer permit it: “You have to have some guys on the line of scrimmage.” In the backfield, fullback Alan “The Horse” Ameche, a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Wisconsin, was lined up behind quarterback Johnny Unitas; right halfback Lenny Moore was three steps to Ameche’s right; and left halfback L. G. Dupre was split far out to the left side of the backfield.

Unitas didn’t give the Giants a chance to set up in a recognizable defensive formation, even if they had one for such a bizarre look. He bent over, and Nutter immediately snapped the ball. Moore took the handoff—and was tackled for a loss.

“So they came out with a trick play in mind, and it really wasn’t all that good,” Reid said, chuckling. The main reason the play failed, he pointed out, was a missed block by Dupre, a speedy back whose initials, which stood for Louis George, had earned him the nickname “Long Gone.” While Moore took the handoff from Unitas and followed Ameche around the left side of the Colts line, Dupre’s job was to race forward and hit Harland Svare, the Giants’ right-side linebacker, taking him out of the play. But the film tells the tale: “He didn’t get the crack [block] right here,” said Reid, using a red laser to point at Svare dodging Dupre, “and he kind of screws the play up.” Svare races into the backfield, forcing Moore to step in front of Ameche, his blocker; the two briefly collide, and then as Moore tries to recover and race to the outside, he is pulled down for the loss.

“And then, the fullback forgot the snap count,” Reid said, rolling the play back to the beginning again. Sure enough, on the snap of the ball, Ameche remains in a set position until Moore actually takes the ball from Unitas. “He forgot that it was a quick count … That’s that Wisconsin education right there.”

I told Reid that I had listened to the NBC radio broadcast, and had been struck by how much more quickly the game moved then than it does today. Breaks between plays and possessions are longer and more frequent now, to allow for more commercials, and the use of video replay to reexamine contested calls by the referees causes still more delays. Modern coaches use these gaps in the action for analysis, for sideline conferences and hand signals, or, in the case of the quarterback, for giving instructions over a direct radio link to his helmet. In 1958, the game, once started, was primarily in the hands of the players. Unitas called his own plays. Defensive field captains like the Giants’ Sam Huff were on-field tacticians. The game was faster and simpler.

It also lacked many of the refined mechanical and tactical innovations that are commonplace in modern football. For instance, Reid was surprised to note that wide receivers assumed a three-point stance before the snap of the ball—today they stand upright, which allows them a broader view of the defensive backfield. The pass defenders, meanwhile, stood upright on the old film, with one foot forward, one back, and then just backpedaled to stay with the receivers. In the modern NFL, backfield defenders poise in a forward crouch with their weight evenly balanced on both legs, and retreat by taking short stutter-steps backward, ready to bolt in either direction and avoiding the crossover step, a potentially costly mistake that can offer a receiver the split-second advantage he needs to break away.

Basic positioning along the line of scrimmage has changed as well. A few plays in, Reid noted that the Giants defensive tackles, Dick Modzelewski and Rosey Grier, were “flexed back off the ball”—that is, set up more than a yard away from the Colts linemen. “That’s probably for the run game,” Reid said, explaining that by hanging back from the line of scrimmage, the defenders could get a better look at the direction of the play before attacking.

I asked, “Why wouldn’t you do that today?”

“Well, you give those big guys a head start on you,” Reid said. “At that time I would imagine that the linemen were fairly equal athletically, and now the offensive linemen are so big and the defensive linemen are relatively smaller.” If you’re a defender today, he went on, and you spot a 300-plus-pound blocker a two-step running start, he’ll knock you “right on your ass.”

Reid surmised correctly. I checked the average weight of the starting offensive and defensive linemen in the ’58 game: the Colts’ offensive front five weighed an average of 243 pounds, and the Giants’ defensive front five weighed an average of 244 pounds. Today, offensive lines on average weigh nearly 25 pounds more than defensive fronts.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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