The 1932 NFL Playoff Game was the first ever playoff game held by the National Football League (NFL), the major professional American football sports league in the United States. Since the league first began play in 1920, the league title had always been awarded to the team that finished the regular season with the best record. But at the end of the 1932 NFL season, the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans tied for first place. To determine the 1932 league champion, the NFL arranged for an additional regular season game between the two teams that would count in the final standings. Due to extremely cold weather, the game was played indoors on December 18, 1932 at Chicago Stadium in Chicago. The final score was Chicago Bears 9, Portsmouth Spartans 0.
The game paved the way for a new era of professional American football. After following the rules of college football for its first 13 years of existence, the NFL began to develop its own rules. The popularity of the game also led the league to start holding annual playoff games. Thus, the 1932 NFL Playoff Game is sometimes unofficially called the 1932 NFL Championship Game.
Furthermore, the game is regarded as the first ever major indoor football game, although this is only true inasmuch as it was the first such game in the forward pass era. A series of matchups in 1902 and 1903, known as the World Series of Football, were held indoors in New York City in an effort to determine the nation's best professional team.
Since the NFL's first season in 1920, every league title had been awarded to the team with the best regular season record, based on winning percentage, with ties omitted. Four of the first six championships were disputed, but only once (the 1921 NFL season) did two teams ever finish tied atop the standings. In that year, the two teams disputing the title had played each other, splitting a two-game series, but league officials used a tiebreaker to controversially give the Bears (then known as the Staleys) the title over the Buffalo All-Americans.
In the 1932 NFL season, the Spartans and the Bears tied for first place (6–1); under the rules at the time, standings were based on winning percentage, with ties excluded from the calculation. Therefore, the Spartans and Bears each finished the regular season with identical .857 winning percentages, ahead of the Green Bay Packers' .769 (10 wins, 3 losses) winning percentage.
Further complicating matters, the Spartans and Bears had tied each other twice during the regular season, rendering the league's only tiebreaker useless. So, for the first time, the league arranged for what amounted to a replay game to determine the NFL champion. Because the game counted in the final standings, the loser would finish third, behind Green Bay; further, the league had to make a rule change to allow the game, since they had banned the practice in 1924.
The game was set to be played at Wrigley Field, the Bears' home stadium. But because of severe blizzards and sub-zero wind chill throughout the week, the game was moved indoors to Chicago Stadium.
Because of the limited dimensions of the indoor arena, special rules were adopted for the game. The dirt-covered field itself was only 80 yards long and 10 yards narrower than the regulation width. The sidelines were butted up against the stands. The goal posts were moved from the endlines to the goal lines. The ball was automatically moved back to the 20-yard line every time one team crossed midfield. For the first time, all plays would start with the ball on or between the hash marks, which were ten yards from the sidelines. Additionally, drop kicks and field goals were banned.
With terrible footing and limited room to work for the offences, teams' defenses dominated the first three quarters of the game. Then in the fourth quarter, the Bears scored on a controversial touchdown. On the play, Carl Brumbaugh handed the ball off to Bronko Nagurski, who then threw it to Red Grange in the end zone for the score. Rules at the time mandated that a forward pass had to be thrown from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Spartans argued that Nagurski did not drop back five yards before passing to Grange, but the touchdown stood. The Bears later scored a safety after the Spartans fumble the ball out of their end-zone.
Because it proved so popular, the 1932 NFL Playoff Game started a new era for the National Football League. Through 1932, the league had used the same rules as college football. Beginning with the 1933 season, the NFL introduced its own rules. The goal posts were moved from the end line to the goal line. (The changed was reversed in 1974.) The forward pass became legal anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. All plays would start with the ball on or between the hash marks.
In 1933, the NFL divided its teams into two divisions. The winners of each division would play in a scheduled championship game to determine the NFL champion.
The 1932 NFL Playoff Game is also regarded as the first major indoor football game, a variation of American football with rules modified to make it suitable for play inside arenas. While several attempts to develop a true indoor football game have been made since then, the only version to meet with anything resembling true success and acceptance has been arena football.
^"NFL History: 1931–1940". NFL.com. Retrieved November 13, 2013. "After the season finale, the league office arranged for an additional regular-season game to determine the league champion"
^Had pure win-loss differential or the post-1972 method of calculating winning percentage (counting ties as half-a-win, half-a-loss) been used at that time, the Packers' record 10–3–1 (.750, +7) would have won them the championship, ahead of the Spartans' 6–1–4 (.727, +5) and the Bears' 6–1–6 (.692, +5).
1 – From 1966 to 1969, the first four Super Bowls were "World Championship" games played between two independent professional football leagues, AFL and NFL, and when the league merged in 1970 the Super Bowl became the NFL Championship Game.
2 – Dates in the list denote the season, not the calendar year in which the championship game was played. For instance, Super Bowl XLI was played in 2007, but was the championship for the 2006 season.