Sunday, December 26, 2010

Working Overtime, Circa 1965

If you're under 40, you almost certainly have no memory of a time when professional football didn't allow for overtime periods during the regular season.

And you definitely have no memory of a time when there was no Super Bowl.

It was 45 years ago this year that professional football teams last played a season without a Super Bowl to crown their champion.

The Super Bowl was introduced to the American public after the 1966 season — but, originally, it wasn't called the Super Bowl. In the early days, it was called the AFL–NFL World Championship Game.

The story behind how the Super Bowl got its name is an interesting one, but it isn't the one I wish to tell today.

Today, I want to talk about 1965. But I can't say that I have much to share in the way of personal memories of that year.

In 1965, I was so little I probably didn't know much about football. I'm sure I didn't. My parents didn't own a TV set in those days.

I've seen pictures of myself from those days in which I was wearing a football helmet. I don't know who gave it to me — my parents? my grandparents? — but it was very generic. No logo on the side, just plain red with a white stripe down the middle.

I doubt that I knew much, if anything, about its purpose. I probably didn't give it any more thought than I gave to the enormous red plastic fish that I carried with me wherever I went.

(You can see that big red plastic fish in the picture at the left, by the way. That's me, second from right, with the fish at my side, as always in those days.)

My grandfather was an avid fisherman, and I had been with him on many fishing expeditions in east Texas, but I had never seen him hook a fish that big.

And he certainly never landed a red fish.

It goes without saying, I guess, that I know much more about football now than I did in 1965. It should also go without saying that that isn't the only thing that has changed in the last 45 years.

As I mentioned, the Super Bowl has undergone a name change since its debut. And the NFL belatedly started allowing overtime to be played during the regular season.

The league was using overtime in the postseason before that. It had been in the rule books for more than a couple of decades.

The rationale for allowing overtime was that you couldn't permit a championship game to end in a tie, although the NFL's rules made that a possibility for more than 20 years, between the founding of the league in 1920 and the implementation of the overtime provision in the playoff guidelines in 1941.

Today, of course, the issue in professional football is not whether to allow games that are tied at the end of regulation to go into overtime. The issue is which kind of overtime format should be used.

It was a different world in the mid–1960s. But even though the overtime provision had been in the rules for nearly a quarter of a century, it had seldom been needed.

Overtime, as I say, was approved for NFL postseason games in 1941, but it hadn't been necessary until the late 1950s, when the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants met in what has been called "the greatest game ever played."

A few years later, the fledgling American Football League played two overtime periods before the Dallas Texans defeated the Houston Oilers.

And those were the only two times, before this day in 1965, that American football fans had experienced sudden death.

Modern football fans — if they could be magically transported back to 1965 — would be astonished, too, by the way playoffs were handled. In 2010, a dozen playoff spots will be awarded in the NFL, and it will take about a month to crown the champion.

Prior to 1966, the NFL was split in two divisions. The regular–season winners faced each other for the championship the week after the season ended. No other teams were involved — unless a division ended in a tie. Then, there would be a one–game playoff between those two teams, with the winner advancing to face the other division winner for the title the following week.

Anyway, that is what happened. The Baltimore Colts and the Green Bay Packers ended the regular season tied atop their division (in the NFL, the divisions actually were called the Eastern and Western conferences at that time) with 10–3–1 records so they met in Green Bay on this day in 1965.

The winner would face the Cleveland Browns (in what would be Jim Brown's last game) for the NFL championship the next Sunday.

(A couple of points here — First, under modern rules, such a playoff would never have been necessary. The Packers and Colts, being members of the same conference, faced each other twice during the regular season, and the Packers won both games. If tiebreaker procedures had been on the books, the Packers would have won based on their head–to–head victories.

(Second, since the Packers swept their games with the Colts during the regular season, obviously the teams didn't play to a stalemate at some point during the regular season. The Packers, in fact, ended their season with a tie against San Francisco. If they had won that game, the third game with the Colts would not have been needed.)

On this day in 1965, the Colts scored 10 points in the first half, and the Packers scored 10 points in the second half. Don Chandler kicked a controversial 25–yard field goal (many Colts fans insisted it sailed wide) in overtime to win the game and send the Packers into the NFL championship game.

Actually, there was a third angle to the playoff between the Colts and the Packers — one that would almost certainly seem alien to 21st–century football fans.

During the 1960s, a game called the Playoff Bowl was played between the second–place teams in each of the NFL's conferences the weekend after the actual NFL championship was played.

The Packers, who were coached by Vince Lombardi in 1965, had played in the NFL championship game in 1960, 1961 and 1962, but they finished second in 1963 and 1964 and had to play in the Playoff Bowl

Lombardi hated the Playoff Bowl, and in 1965, he used that as motivation for his players prior to the playoff with the Colts. If they lost to Baltimore, he warned his players, they would wind up in the Playoff Bowl, which was, he told them, "the 'Shit Bowl' ...a losers' bowl for losers."

The NFL did away with the Playoff Bowl after the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970.

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