There is only one thing worse than a tie game, and that is a scoreless tie game.
It has happened only one time in the modern history of the National Football League*, and the Detroit Lions were involved.
The date was November 7, 1943. German bombers were conducting air raids on London. The Nazis reported sinking a convoy of 13 Allied transport ships off the coast of Africa. Detroit was in the second week of its War Chest drive, with only nine days left to reach a goal of nearly $8.5 million. Meanwhile, a dairy shortage had resulted in strict milk rationing throughout the city. Detroiters were used to it, however; with a war going on, limits on canned goods, jams, meat, sugar, shoes, fuel oil, and gasoline were also in effect.
Against this backdrop, the New York football Giants arrived at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull for a Sunday afternoon tilt against the Lions.
It was to be the last game of the season at Briggs Stadium. Under first-year head coach Gus Dorais, the Lions had shown improvement after the 0-11 disaster of 1942. With a record of three wins and four losses, however, it was still a lost campaign. As for the Giants, Coach Steve Owen had guided them to a 2-2 mark so far.
With the two teams going nowhere, a smaller-than-usual crowd was to be expected. When you also factor in the cold, rainy weather, it should come as no surprise that only 16,992 fans bothered to brave the elements. It was easily the Lions’ smallest home turnout of the year.
Detroit boasted a balanced corps of solid receivers in 1943. Harry Hopp, Ben Hightower, Jack Matheson, and Bill Fisk all caught at least 10 passes on the year. Rookie Frankie Sinkwich, the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Georgia, led the team with 699 passing yards and seven touchdowns, as well as pacing the attack with 266 yards rushing. Unfortunately, he also threw 20 interceptions.
The 0-0 tie may have been historic, but, as one might expect, it was a yawner of a game. The low scoring was primarily a result of the wet conditions, as both teams spent the afternoon slipping and sliding through the mud.
New York’s big scoring chance came when veteran center Mel Hein intercepted a wobbly pass from the Lions’ Bill Callahan. He raced to the Detroit 20 before being brought down. It marked the only time the Giants made it past midfield. Moments later, their kicker, Ward Cuff, missed a field goal from the 15, and that was the closest either team would get to the end zone all day.
Detroit’s Augie Lio muffed all three of his field goal attempts, including two in the final quarter of play. The last one, from 25 yards out, sailed wide right and the ball skidded away in the mud. Clearly, neither kicker could get a proper footing.
The Giants made only three first downs all day; the Lions, with six, could hardly be described as dynamic. Detroit threw 12 passes, completing five, for a mere 28 yards. New York was 4-for-12 passing, for only three yards. The ground games were better, but not enough to make a difference: the Lions rushed for 102 yards, the Giants 81.
The poor conditions were not the only factor in the offensively challenged contest. The year 1943 was the first in which NFL rosters suffered serious depletion due to the military draft. The Cleveland Rams, in fact, were forced to suspend operations because they could not field a team. The Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers, who were also unable to find enough warm bodies, merged operations and got tagged with the mocking nickname “Steagles.”
Still, there were some noteworthy players on the field that wet, wet wartime afternoon. The Giants had three future Hall of Famers in Hein, Tuffy Leemans, and Coach Owen. Giants right tackle Al Blozis would be killed in combat in France in January 1945. He was only 26 years old. Detroit tackle Alex Ketzko met a similar fate at age 25 in the Battle of the Bulge.
The Lions wrapped up their season with a 42-20 trouncing at the hands of Washington at Griffith Stadium, and a tough 35-34 defeat against those Philadelphia/Pittsburgh Steelers at Forbes Field. Once again, Detroit finished out of the playoffs, as they had every year since winning the NFL championship in 1935.
* Prior to 1940 there were several games that ended in a scoreless tie.