How the Detroit Lions Are Tied to the NFL’s “First” Playoff Game
While the Lions are synonymous with whatever the opposite of playoff success is, the early days of the team weren't quite so similar, even before the Lions were born in 1934. For those that don't know, the Lions were originally the Portsmouth Spartans. In a roundabout way, Ohio gave the state of Michigan one of its biggest sources of depression: the Detroit Lions.
Of course, that was after players were given shares of the franchise instead of paychecks because the team was so heavily in debt. Only in Ohio. But that didn't stop the Spartans players from playing their hardest. In fact, in the game leading up to the subject of this article, the Spartans beat the Green Bay Packers 19-0 with only 11 players playing the entire game.
The Spartans were about as anti-Lions as could be. Not only did the team play in Ohio, but the team colors were purple and gold, the eventual colors of the rival Minnesota Vikings. On top of that, the team was actually kind of good going 28-16-7 over four seasons. In 1931, the Spartans went 11-3, finishing second to the crowned NFL Champion Green Bay Packers, a team the Spartans didn't play that year.
The next year in 1932, the Spartans and the Chicago Bears were tied at the top of the NFL standings with six wins apiece. Because the NFL didn't count ties in the standings, the 10-win Green Bay Packers were laughably out of the picture. But, because the Bears and Spartans had beaten each other in the regular season, crowning the 1932 NFL Champion required an extra contest.
The Bears would host the Spartans on an 80-yard field (60 yards between the goal lines, mind you) at since-demolished Chicago Stadium as a blizzard and extremely low temperatures forced the game indoors to determine the 1932 NFL Champion.
The game was weird, as expected with only 60 yards of playing surface as drop kicks and field goals were not allowed. The game saw the goalposts moved to the goalline, a decision the NFL inexplicably kept as standard for another 41 years after the game. However, it was the first time the NFL used hash marks to place the ball, though they were just 10 yards from the sidelines. But to top the weirdness, if a team crossed the 10-yard line without scoring, the ball was moved back 20 yards to compensate for the short field.
Kicks, punts and passes all flew into the stands. One kickoff even hit the organ player while he was playing. It's truly a shame this whole event couldn't be caught on video.
The game held nill for three quarters despite the short field. While the Spartans were without its Hall of Fame quarterback Dutch Clark while he was coaching basketball at Colorado College (yes, really), the Bears had two of the greatest early players of all time on its roster: Red Grange and Bronco Nagurski. That duo combined for the game's lone touchdown on a controversial passing touchdown from Nagurski to Grange.
After a Spartans self-inflicted safety brought the game to 9-0 Chicago, the Bears left the dirt field as the 1932 NFL Champions.
Despite the absurdly bizarre nature of the event, the game popularized the idea of playoff games for the NFL. And so, starting in 1933, the NFL split its 10-team league into two conferences and pitted the winners of each division against each other to determine the NFL Champion. Playoff games would be used if a tie existed at the top of each conference to determine which team would play in the championship. This happened on eight occasions.
The NFL didn't begin using playoff games as we know them today to reach a championship until 1967 when the league expanded to 16 teams with two divisions in each conference.
Of course, that's about the time the Lions ceased to have playoff success of any kind. After the Lions won the 1957 NFL Championship with Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne's backup Tobin Rote (Layne missed most of the season with a broken leg), Layne was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That moment very well cursed the Lions as the team has made the postseason just 12 times since, winning just one playoff game in 1992 over the Dallas Cowboys. The team wouldn't even have a franchise quarterback for another 50 years when Matthew Stafford was drafted in 2009.
The Lions relationship with the NFL Playoffs is a rocky one, to say the least. But, at the end of the day, the Lions can, in some way, say they played a part in the NFL's first playoff game. Though, it's far from a consolation prize in the eyes of any Lions fan today.