The NFL was a very interesting league 78 years ago. It nearly folded actually, with so many players being drafted into the army and thus unable to play games. In all, 600 players from the league joined. And so, a very unique decision was made by the two Pennsylvania franchises to try and make things work.
The Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers, who were bitter rivals in the 40’s, merged their teams as one. Philly had 16 players, though Pitt had just six. So, the decision was made, begrudgingly by the Eagles owner Alexis Thompson, to merge the teams. He opted to agree because Art Rooney, the owner of the Steelers had decided to swap cities with him a few years earlier.
Putting the Team Together
None of the Eagles or Steelers players liked each other. And one of them, Ted Doyle (Pittsburgh) realized later that his work at Westinghouse Electric helped assist on the Manhattan Project, which was America’s effort to erect an atomic bomb.
The Steagles name initially came from Chet Smith, who was the editor of the Pittsburgh Press. But, Eagles writers and insisted on calling them the Eagles still, as they comprised much of the roster.
The teams each had a very stubborn head coach, that absolutely refused a demotion. That’s how we got co–coaches for the first time. Greasy Neale and Walt Kiesling both shared the “head coach” label that year, with one expected to run the offense, and the other to man the defense.
Vic Sears was an All-Pro lineman during his days with the Eagles, and played for the Steagles. He could not believe how set in their ways the coaches were. “Greasy would put in a play, and Kiesling would say ‘that’ll never work’. We managed to finish the season with a winning record. Don’t ask me how.” This was an excerpt from a 2018 piece done by Eagles writer Ray Didinger.
The team had 25 players in total, with 16 from the Eagles and a meager six from the Steelers. They added three more, and thus the Steagles were born.
Playing the Games
As shocking as it was, this hybrid team, with two coaches and merged rosters, managed to get off to a 2-0 start. They picked up a 17-0 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers, and they followed it up with a 28-14 win over the New York Giants. Nobody seemed to like each other, but at the end of the day, perhaps winning was the cure?
The Bears decimated the Steagles 48-21, and then the Giants got their revenge, in the form of a 42-14 shellacking the following week. The Steagles knocked off the Chicago Cardinals 34-13, before ending in a tie against Washington, 14-14. They lost a low-scoring contest 13-7 against Chicago then, following it with a miraculous 35-34 win over the Detroit Lions.
In the final two games of their odd season, the Steagles beat Washington 27-14, before losing 38-28 to the Packers to conclude the season. They finished surprisingly well, with a 5-4-1 record. They were #4 in the league in points scored (out of 10) thanks to averaging 30 points per contest in the last three they played.
Stat Leaders for the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Steagles
25-year-old Roy Zimmerman was the primary quarterback for the Steagles, finishing with a measly 34% completion rate, going 43-124. He tossed nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Allie Sherman, the 20-year-old QB2 finished 16-37 (43.2%) for 208 yards, two touchdowns and a single INT.
It was a four-headed rushing attack, led by Jack Hinkle, who amassed 571 yards on 116 attempts, crossing the plane three times. Johnny Butler had 87 attempts for 362 yards and three scores. And they had nine combined touchdowns from Ernie Steele and Bob Thurbon.
Tony Boya, who was the left-end, had a team-high in receptions (17), yards (419) and touchdowns (5). The pass attack was underdeveloped, and generally not a huge part of the game in the 40’s. Either way, two coaches that were down each other’s throats likely struggled to call an effective pass game, leading to a run-heavy offense.
Zimmerman also served as the team’s kicker, converting 26-28 extra points. He went just 1-6 on field-goal attempts for the year, though.
If you’d like to see all of the Steagles stats, click here
Wrapping It Up
It was a weird season to be an NFL player in the state of Pennsylvania in 1943. 25 folks had that designation. Two (head) coaches. Five wins. Four losses. A season to remember. And at the same, it was most certainly a season to forget.
It was miraculous, as Vic Sears said, that the team managed to finish with a winning record. The coaches hated each other. And yet, they stayed competitive. It was for one year only, as the Eagles had enough players to field their own roster the following campaign.
So, the Steelers merged with the Chicago Cardinals instead. Now called Card-Pitt, they wound up being referred to as the “Carpets” after the fact, due to the fact that they went winless.
Thank You for Reading
Thanks for reading the first Flashback Friday installment! I hope to make this a weekly piece, beginning with the Steagles article.