The NFL Dayton Triangles

The Forgotten Field General:
Carl Brumbaugh - One of the Most
Significant Quarterbacks of Early NFL

by Steve Jacoby 

 

Chronologically if not alphabetically, the conversation about the best NFL quarterbacks of all time begins with Sammy Baugh and extends through Michael Vick. Sprinkled in between are the names Luckman, Unitas, Bradshaw, Montana and Marino, each of whom enjoyed All-Pro careers that included championship berths as a prelude to enshrinement in Canton.

But one of the most significant signal callers of the 20th century cannot be found in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, nor in the typical barroom discussion about the league's alltime best.

Instead, one must look off the beaten path to West Milton, admittedly little more than a rest stop along the road to football immortality, but important nonetheless in pro football history.

For West Milton was where Carl "Brummy" Brumbaugh was born, and where his legacy lives on today.

Early days of football

Despite being in business for the better part of a quarter-century, professional football in the 1920s had yet to gain a toehold in America's sporting consciousness. At the time, it ranked behind its forerunner, college football, in both popularity and credibility, and far behind professional sports such as baseball and boxing.

For what it was worth, by the early 1900s Ohio had established itself as the epicenter of pro football. It had been home to the Ohio League, one of the first confederations of pro teams. When the NFL formed in 1920, six of the original teams - including the Dayton Triangles - were based in Ohio.

Still, the sport struggled to find a following. Average attendance was less than 9,000 per game. Franchises came and went. Interest, at best, was tepid.

Carl Brumbaugh, however, loved the game. In the early 1920s, he began playing high school football against the wishes of his father, Levi, who viewed the sport as a violent game.

Levi relented - the story goes, after seeing his son romp for a touchdown in his first prep game - and Carl went on to a solid career as a high school halfback in West Milton.

After graduation from West Milton in 1924, the younger Brumbaugh opted to play at Ohio State University, where he earned a letter as a freshman. A year later, after receiving little playing time as a sophomore, Brumbaugh transferred to the University of Florida.

In Florida, Brumbaugh started as a single-wing halfback on squads that displayed improvement. As a senior in 1928, he scored three touchdowns in seven minutes against Auburn and went on to rank second in the nation in scoring with 106 points.

A year later, Brumbaugh returned to Ohio to play semipro football with a succession of teams, each stop providing less opportunity than the one before.

A day's drive to the west, the Chicago Bears found themselves in unfamiliar territory. The Bears, who were the bellwethers of the early NFL, had experienced their first losing season in 1929.

They needed a fresh look on offense, including someone to trigger it. Enter Charlie Bachman, Brumbaugh's college coach and a friend and former teammate of George Halas, then coach of the Chicago Bears.

Bachman urged Halas to give Brumbaugh a tryout.

Brumbaugh entered the 1930 season competing for time at running back with rookie Bronko Nagurski and the famed Red Grange.

"I came up as a halfback," Brumbaugh said. "But when I saw Red Grange and some of the others on the team, I decided I was a quarterback."

Arrival in Chicago

At 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, Brumbaugh barely resembled a student manager let alone a quarterback, especially in today's super-sized era of Daunte Culpepper, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.

But more than just feet and pounds, quarterbacks in those days were measured by different criteria. They were expected to run offenses - conservative offenses at that - and leave the heavy lifting to bulldogs such as Grange and Nagurski.

Brumbaugh's arrival in Chicago coincided with that of Ralph Jones, Halas' successor as coach of the Bears. Jones was brought in to revitalize Chicago's T-formation attack. He quickly recognized that Brumbaugh, with his quick feet and deceptive fakes, was the perfect guy to orchestrate it.

When Joey Sternaman was injured in Chicago's 1930 season opener, Brumbaugh took over as the Bears' starting quarterback, a job he held for the next five years. Although he never completed more than nine passes in a season, Brumbaugh became, as one observer put it, "one of the truly great quarterbacks."

"I love the football so much that I hug it like a child," Brumbaugh said. "I love to run with it. But now I believe that I am getting smarter. I give it to Nagurski."

He exhibited a rare understanding of the T formation, channeling the teachings of Jones and Halas while employing sleight-of-hand worthy of another contemporary, the illusionist Harry Houdini.

Potsy Clark, the coach of the rival Detroit Lions, called Brumbaugh the "smartest quarterback in the league," a sentiment often echoed by Halas.

Brumbaugh capped his rookie season by leading Chicago to a 9-4-1 mark, a near reversal of its disastrous 1929 campaign. After another solid season in 1931, the Bears were poised to regain their spot atop pro football in 1932.

After a sluggish start, Chicago finished strong by going unbeaten - five wins, three ties - over its final eight games to tie Portsmouth for the league title. With buzz about the league growing, NFL commissioner Joe Carr decided the league needed a boost.

A championship game - the first of its kind - between Chicago and Portsmouth might do it.

One problem: Wrigley Field, then the home of the Bears and the logical venue for such a game, had been covered by a blizzard, so the NFL decided to move the game indoors to Chicago Stadium, which workers hastily converted to accommodate football.

While it beat the cold and snow of Wrigley Field, the retrofitted Chicago Stadium was only 80 yards long by 40 yards wide, about two-thirds the size of a regulation field. It had hosted a circus the day before the game.

It was on that makeshift field that Chicago and Portsmouth - the league's two glamour teams - played to a scoreless tie through the better part of three quarters, no great surprise since Chicago had played to six ties during the regular season.

However, on fourth-and-goal from the Portsmouth 2 late in the third quarter, fullback Bronko Nagurski took the handoff from Brumbaugh, darted forward toward the goal line, threw on the brakes, retreated two steps and tossed the winning touchdown pass to a wide-open Red Grange.

Those on the Portsmouth team immediately cried foul. In those days, forward passes were to be thrown no closer than five yards from the line of scrimmage. Nagurski's toss clearly violated the standing rule, which was overturned the following year, paving the way for the evolution of the modern passing game.

Many innovations

The Portsmouth pass was one of many innovations to which Brumbaugh either contributed to or accomplished on his own. Brumbaugh and George Trafton, the Bears center, developed the one-handed center snap, which allowed Trafton a free arm for more effective blocking and also delivered the ball to the quarterback with the laces in the correct position for passes.

Similarly, Brumbaugh joined forces with Jack Manders, the Bears' kicker, to perfect the holds on placekicks. Brumbaugh spun the ball so that the laces pointed toward the goal, decreasing wind resistance that might affect the flight of the ball.

In a game against the Green Bay Packers during his rookie season, Brumbaugh worked with Grange on the concept - which is commonplace today - of using a man in motion. The innovation effectively ended the stacked, seven-man defensive front.

According to one historian, "Jones, Brumbaugh and Grange ... opened up a trail for future generations of T-formation quarterbacks to follow."

Chicago repeated as NFL champs in 1933, defeating the New York Giants 23-21, in the first playoff between winners of the western and eastern divisions.

The two teams met again for the NFL title in 1934, with the Giants rallying to end the Bears' dominance, 30-13. Still, it was no fault of Brumbaugh, who guided Chicago to wins in 13 of its regular season games and who, his teammates said, was the "best field general in the National League."

Brumbaugh, however, wanted to be paid as one of the game's best, a desire that did not align with the frugal ways of owner George Halas. After the two sides failed to agree on a contract for the 1935 season, Brumbaugh left the Bears for an assistant coaching job at West Virginia University.

Although Brumbaugh returned to the Bears in 1936 and went to play three more pro seasons, his experience at West Virginia would be the tonic for life after the NFL. After retiring from the NFL in 1938, Brumbaugh spent the next decade teaching the T formation to pro and college teams.

From the Bears - where he worked with the godfather of the T, Clark Shaughnessy - and on to Boston College, the University of Cincinnati, Holy Cross, Louisiana State and the NFL's Chicago Cardinals, Brumbaugh spread the word.

He even gained fame for introducing the offense to high school teams in Massachusetts. Noted Harry Arlenson, the former coach at Weymouth (Mass.) High, Brumbaugh was "responsible for putting the modern T into (Massachusetts) high school football."

Brumbaugh's tutorials must have worked: BC, UC and LSU all went to bowls after learning his T formation.

Even the woebegone Chicago Cardinals, one of the NFL's worst teams, finished above .500 in 1946, the first year they used Brumbaugh's T. The next year, they won the NFL's Western Division title.

In the 1950s, Brumbaugh left coaching to pursue interests outside the game. He eventually turned to the media, broadcasting University of Dayton football games in 1953.

In 1964, he pitched the concept of instant replay to ABC television and worked on a stillborn idea for a radio or television program to be called Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in Sports.

Brumbaugh died of a heart attack in 1969. Although not enshrined in either the Bears' or the NFL's halls of fame, Brumbaugh nonetheless was among the game's most significant signal callers and one of its early innovators.

As the Chicago Sun-Times noted, "Here was Carl Brumbaugh, the ... daring quarterback whose insane recklessness won more than one game for the Bears."

BRUMBAUGH'S ACHIEVMENTS

  • NFL titles: Led Bears to back-to-back championships in 1932 and 1933
  • T formation: The foremost architect of the modern offense
  • Center snap: Helped perfect the one-handed exchange
  • Placekicks: Refined holds by spinning laces toward goalposts
  • Man-in-motion: Helped develop play that ended the seven-man defensive front
  • Teacher: Implemented T formation for many pro and college teams.

 

Copyright 2005 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.

 

Dayton Daily News (Ohio) January 20, 2005 Thursday, BYLINE: By Steve Jacoby For the Dayton Daily News, Contact Steve Jacoby at 937-225-2250 or
by e-mail at SDJacoby@earthlink.net.    

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