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Today's Tidbit... Tie Games And The 1932 NFL Championship
Following Sunday's post, which included an image from 1954 showing a list of every NFL champion to date, a subscriber who hails from Down Under sent me a note:
I would be interested to know if there was much contemporary commentary from the 1932 season when a 6-1-6 Bears team played a 6-1-4 Portsmouth team [in the NFL championship game], with a 10-3-1 Packers team left on the sideline.
I appreciated the question and dug into newspaper reporting from November 1932 to January 1933 and can definitively say the answer is both "Yes" and "No." However, before covering the response to the situation, let's review how it came about.
In 1932, the NFL was an eight-team league in cities ranging from Boston in the Northeast, to Chicago and Green Bay in the West, and Portsmouth to the south. (Portsmouth sits on the Ohio River south of Columbus and East of Cincinnati.) Due to transportation challenges and to allow league teams to play local rivals that were not in the NFL, the league did not play a balanced schedule. During the 1932 season, teams played between ten and fourteen regular-season games and planned a championship game only if the league leaders tied at the end of the regular season.
Many leagues, including the NFL, used a simple system to determine their champions: the champion was the team with the highest win percentage in league play, and they based the win percentage on the number of wins divided by the number of wins and losses.
The calculation was straightforward enough, but in the low-scoring games of the era, there were lots of tie games. Under the straight winning percentage formula, a team winning one game, losing zero, and tying nine (1-0-9, 1.00) would have a higher win percentage or ratio than a team winning nine and losing one (9-1-0, 0.900). While the system was unfair, most shrugged it off, believing a better system did not exist and that the likelihood of a team with numerous ties contending for a championship was low.
Of course, hockey already used a better system that treated ties as a half-game won and half-game lost, but the shoulder-shruggers still figured the chances were low that a multi-tie team might win a title, so life went on. And then, 1932 came along.
By early December 1932, the Packers, who had won the league title three years in a row, once again led the league with a 10-1-4 (.909) record, followed by Portsmouth at 5-1-4 (.833) and the Chicago Bears at 4-1-6 (.800). Unfortunately for the Packers, they finished the season at Portsmouth and Chicago, while the Bears played the Giants in New York before returning home to meet the Packers. Since the Packers-Portsmouth game was the last for the Spartans, a Packers' loss would knock Green Bay from the title race, while that outcome and two wins by the Bears would lead to the Bears and Spartans tying with six wins and one loss.
Guess what happened? The Packers lost both, and the Bears won both, so the NFL standings at the end of the regular season were as follows:
That led to the famous championship game played in Chicago, where weather conditions forced the game to be played indoors at Chicago Stadium on a narrow, short field with hockey boards for sidelines. Among the adjustments made was to move the ball away from the boards when the previous play ended nearby.
The Bears won 9-0 to take home the trophy.
There was limited public reaction to the Packers' plight. It just was what it was, and they lost out based on rules in place before the season began. Still, the league recognized it had problems and looked for ways to increase scoring and reduce ties.
The championship game contributed to the adoption of hash marks the following season (college coaches already supported the same move), giving offenses more room to roam. The NFL also departed from the college rules by returning the goal posts to the goal line, where they had stood until 1927. The pros figured that with more scoring, they could continue calculating the winning percentage as always.
The suggestion to change the winning percentage calculation to account for ties came up now and again, most notably in 1964, when George Halas proved the strongest opponent, but the switch did not pass until 1972. By then, the lack of fairness in the win percentage calculation was no longer the issue. Rather, the NFL did not want a system that encouraged teams to settle for ties rather than put forth all efforts to win games. That proved the final straw.
The onset of tie-breaking procedures, playoffs, and wildcard systems has lessened the impact of tie games. Still, if there should come a year in which a playoff-contending NFL team has multiple ties, the new winning percentage calculation will prove far more defensible to all concerned.
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