‘We need to generate more than zero points to win games, there’s no doubt,” Chicago Bears coach John Fox.
This is hardly assailable logic. Coming after his Bears lost 26-0 to Seattle last Sunday what else could Fox say? When I first read this line I chuckled as everybody probably did. Fox is a master of the subtle quips, those self-deprecating one-liners that break up room. It’s a part of what has made him one of the best coaches of his time, taking two teams to Super Bowls and inventing an offense mid-season that worked for Tim Tebow.
But his words on Monday made me think: If you don’t score and the other team doesn’t score and the game ends in a 0-0 tie then presumably that is a victory of sorts. At least it’s not a loss. Yet I couldn’t remember an NFL game that ended scoreless. I could recall some 3-0 games in recent years but never one that was 0-0. So I looked it up. Surprisingly the last 0-0 game was more than 70 years ago. It was played on 7 November 1943 between the Detroit Lions and New York Giants.
The record of the game, though, was sparse. It said the Lions and Giants played before 16,992 in Detroit’s Briggs Stadium generating just 214 yards between them. Knowing there had to be more I called Dan Daly, a football researcher outside of Washington DC.
Daly knows a lot about the last 0-0 game. In fact he thinks about it every time a game is scoreless at halftime or drifts into the third quarter without a point. He has a box score from the game, found in an old copy of the New York Times. The box score revealed a few interesting facts that might have explained how the game could have ended as it did.
For instance, Lions kicker Augie Lio missed field goal attempts from 32, 40 and 15 yards. Giants kicker Ward Cuff also missed one.
“It had to have been a terrible field,” Daly said. “It was probably muddy and guys couldn’t get their footing. The kickers probably couldn’t get their footing.”
In those days, he said, it was common for an NFL stadium to host high school games on Friday nights, college games on Saturday, leaving the field a trampled mess for the professional game on Sunday. Since fields then weren’t built with sophisticated drainage systems, rain would often render them useless.
But even if the field was in top shape, neither team was likely to be very good. This was in the middle of World War Two and 1943 was the first season that saw a widespread exodus of players, drafted to fight overseas. The Browns suspended operations for the year and the Steelers and Eagles merged into a team everyone called the Steagles. While many teams still had stars who had been given deferments because they had families or ran ranches or farms, they lacked depth. The starting 11 might be good, professional players but the backups would probably have never made a roster in normal times.
In the next season, played after the D-Day invasion, Daly said the Giants could actually put out a backfield in which none of the players had played varsity football in college.
One of those players, Bob Pachel, a tailback for the Giants in the 0-0 game, ruined his college career at Georgia Tech when he injured his leg slipping out of an upper bunk in a dormitory bedroom his freshman year. When the leg failed to sufficiently heal, he left school, found a job, got married and had children until trying football again years later.
That was football in those days. The Giants Hall of Fame center, Mel Hein, worked as a physical education instructor during the weeks at Union College, before rushing to the games on Sunday. Detroit’s starting guard, Riley Matheson, was a mining engineer whose nickname was “The Rattler” because he liked to catch rattlesnakes.
The Lions tailback that day, Frankie Sinkwich – the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner -- was nicknamed “Flat Foot Frankie” because his condition gave him a medical discharge from the Marines. Although Daly has seen evidence that the real reason for Sinkwich’s discharge was ulcers, it was more fun to call him Flat Foot Frankie, so the story stuck.
Two players in the game – Giants right tackle Al Blozis and Lions tackle Alex Ketzko – would be dead within two years, killed in the war. Ketzko died barely a year later during the Battle of the Bulge. He was 25. Blozis was killed at 26 in France in January 1945.
Details on what happened in the 0-0 game are limited. The Lions did rush for 102 yards and the Giants 81. New York attempted only four passes that day, completing just one for three yards, making it likely that the weather was miserable.
Since that day there have been six 3-0 games, including the infamous 1982 snowplow game, which involved a more blatant form of cheating from the New England Patriots than we are accustomed to today. With 4:45 left in a scoreless tie and the field in Foxborough’s Schaefer Stadium covered in snow, Patriots coach Ron Meyer instructed a plow operator to clear a spot for kicker John Smith who hit a 33-yard field goal to beat Miami.
Given the weather that day and the fact the field under the snow was frozen after rainstorm the night before, the snowplow game might be the closest we have come to a scoreless tie in a modern era.
The last one remains a long forgotten day in Detroit in the middle of world war two.
“It doesn’t get mentioned a lot because it is so beyond the realm of imagination in the passing era,” Daly said.
But given the Bears are looking at another week with Jimmy Clausen as their quarterback a 0-0 tie might be the best hope for John Fox.
This article was written by Les Carpenter, for theguardian.com on Thursday 1st October 2015 15.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010