The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL
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by Mark Bowden
Next spring, 85-year-old Yankee Stadium will meet the wrecking ball and be replaced by the sleek new ballpark rising across the street. The old haunt of Ruth and Gherig saw its share of memorable sporting moments, most of which have been replayed in continual rotation during the park’s season-long swan song. But often lost amidst the tidal wave of baseball nostalgia is the fact that perhaps the greatest game ever played at the Stadium involved not a single Yankee.
On a Sunday afternoon in December 1958, the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts squared off for the NFL championship in front of 65,000 fans in the Bronx—and some 50 million more watching at home. The game featured some of the greatest players of all time—men like John Unitas, Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, and Art Donovan—and it came to a thrilling and unprecedented conclusion: the first and only overtime in an NFL championship. Fifty years later, the matchup is still known as “the greatest game ever played,” an honorific that football fans confer with some degree of unanimity, and it’s widely credited for almost single-handedly propelling football toward its current position atop the summit of the American sporting world.
Though the game’s mythology persists, very few people have ever actually seen it; the original television broadcast appears to be forever lost to history. But Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent, tracked down an old coach’s film of the game while researching his latest book, The Best Game Ever. Curious about how football had changed in the intervening years, Bowden sat down with Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid to dissect the film, and to assess the play-calling from a modern coach’s perspective. Bowden’s resulting article, “Distant Replay,” appears in this month’s Atlantic. We spoke by phone last week.
In the 50 years since that championship, there have been a lot of great games. And as you note in your article, the ’58 game was actually a pretty sloppy one, and the coaches made use of some pretty simplistic strategies. Why do you think this has game endured so long as the greatest of all time?
Well, I think there are a number of reasons. First of all, a sloppy game doesn’t necessarily mean a bad game—fans want to see exciting, dramatic football. And when you have two really good teams playing against one another, they force each other to make a lot of mistakes, so that’s pretty much par for the course. The game was a great football game first and foremost, where the lead changed hands back and forth throughout, and it was won in a dramatic field-length drive by the Colts. It was actually tied in the final seconds and went into the first overtime in history—and that’s still the only overtime that’s ever been played in an NFL championship or Super Bowl. So for those reasons alone it was a great football game to watch. But it also pitted the best offense in the league at the time against the best defense, and it was fitting perhaps that they initially fought to a tie.
It’s remembered as well because it drew the largest audience to ever watch a football game, and that was because of television. An estimated 45 to 50 million people saw the game, which spilled over into primetime on Sunday night—which was a much bigger deal back in 1958 than it is today, since there were only two or three television channels to choose from. And so it introduced pro football in a particularly exciting and dramatic way to a vast audience.
And in fact, no one knew this when they were watching it at the time, but this game became the impetus for the subsequent dramatic success of professional football. Within two years, the American Football League started up to take advantage of the growing interest in the game. Johnny Unitas was paid, I believe, $17,000 for the 1958 season. Within three or four years, Joe Namath was being paid $250,000 as a bonus just to sign with the New York Jets—I mean, the fortunes of the league and its players began to increase exponentially right after this game. So it’s universally recognized as sort of the spur to the modern success of the league.
It was also the largest assembly of talent on the field at the same time in football history. There were 17 future Hall of Famers involved, both on the field and on the sidelines, and while I think there have been games since that have rivaled or equaled that number, for 1958 it was definitely the highest-powered collection of talent ever assembled.
Lastly, one of the reasons why it was such a seminal moment is that you had the strategic architects of modern football on the field all coaching at the same time. Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry were the assistant coaches for the Giants and Weeb Ewbank was the coach for the Colts, and they were implementing offenses and defenses that were new then and relatively primative, but which have evolved into the standard offenses and defenses that you see today.
In a Sports Illustrated article that came out shortly after the game, Tex Maule wrote, “The classics of the pre-television era have been perpetuated only in the minds of the spectators on hand and by the newspaper accounts; this for the first time was a truly epic game which inflamed the imagination of the national audience.” Television plays a big role in your book, and this game comes across as one of the first truly national sporting experiences of the kind that we now almost take for granted.
Well, yes, with the possible exception of the World Series, which had become a national event by the 1950s—everything stopped and everyone watched it on television. This was the first time that happened for football. And given that it was on prime time on Sunday night, it really was one of the first of the sort of communal national events that we all have come to—if not take for granted—accept as part of modern life. In part, this was because television was itself a new phenomenon. But to me, at its most basic, it introduced the game to a generation of football fans who had never really seen it before. And it sort of carved out Sunday afternoon as the football space for America.
But even with 50 million people watching, television hadn’t yet assumed a central place in the game itself—and you mention that the style of play was a lot different as a result.
Yeah. The most important difference now is the game is a lot slower, and part of that is directly the result of television. They’ve imposed time-outs to allow for commercials, so there are various incentives to slow the game down. And the consequence of that has been—as Andy Reid noted—that coaches have become a far more important part of the game itself, because there’s actually time now for coaches to do things like quickly evaluate snapshots of the opponent’s offense or defense, and look at replays and devise tactical adjustments, and—literally, nowadays—call in the offensive plays or change the defense, change the personnel on the field. There wasn’t any time for that in the pre-television era, and so everything moved very quickly. Once the ball was kicked off, the game really was in the hands of the players on the field. I actually think if there’s one reform I would like to see to the game, it would be to get back to that. Although I doubt that’s going to happen.
One of the most interesting storylines you bring out in your book is that the play-calling in this game came down to a battle of wits between Sam Huff at linebacker and Johnny Unitas at quarterback. Do you think we’ll ever see players measure up to that performance—especially now that coaching staffs have so much more control over what happens on the field?
Well, you certainly have players with the same level of ability, but I think in terms of their importance to the team, probably not. Because if you look at John Unitas, he had the ability to make adjustments during the game based on what he was seeing and evaluating in the players across the line of scrimmage from him, and he was extremely skilled at noticing small things—little changes in formation, or players who were winded, or somebody who’s injured. And he was authorized to structure the sequence of plays that he called to take advantage of those things. If you lose someone who’s plugged into the game like that, and who has that much control, that was an enormous set-back in 1958.
But as you say, in today’s NFL the coaches are basically orchestrating, and the player is to a much greater extent just someone who implements what the coaches call. So in that sense, as long as you have a guy with decent mechanincs who can execute the plays as designed, you don’t lose that much when, say, Tom Brady goes down.