The Packers and Redskins met in the very first postseason game in the history of the Green Bay franchise. The year was 1936. The nation was still in the grips of the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House and facemasks were still not used by most NFL players.
The Packers had won NFL titles in 1929, 1930 and 1931, but there were no playoffs back then, the team with the best record simply won the NFL championship.
The owners realized they could make more money selling tickets to a championship game, so in 1933, the league officially sanctioned a title game between the winners of the Eastern and Western Divisions.
The Packers opponents that season included familiar teams like the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and New York Giants, the less familiar clubs like the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates.
How different was the league in 1936? Each team played 12 games. The Packers played their first six games at home (four in Green Bay and two in Milwaukee) and their final six contests on the road, something the league would never permit today. Players still played both ways in those days, offense and defense.
The Packers were still coached by founder Curly Lambeau while the Redskins were coached by Ray Flaherty. Other Hall of Famers on the Green Bay roster included running backs Johnny “Blood” McNally and Clarke Hinkle and offensive lineman Walt Kiesling.
But the Packers were a dominant team because they had the best passing offense in the league. Quarterback and future Hall of Famer Arnie Herber led the NFL with 1,239 passing yards for the season with the next best passer, Ed Matestic of Pittsburgh, gaining only 850 yards for the season.
But the biggest star of the team was wide receiver Don Hutson who was the most dominant player in the league at that time. Hutson finished the season with 34 catches to lead the league. The next highest player was Bill Smith of the Cardinals with 20 receptions or roughly 41 percent less. To put that in perspective, Jarvis Landry led the league in 2017 with 112 catches. That would mean the second highest receiver would have had only 66 receptions.
The league’s talent was not so evenly distributed that year. The teams with the three best records all played in the West Division. The Packers finished 10-1-1, followed by the Bears at 9-3 and the Lions at 8-4. The Redskins won the East Division with a 7-5 mark, the only team in the East with a winning record.
The Redskins were based in Boston and played their home games at Fenway Park. But attendance was disappointing and owner George Preston Marshall decided to move the team to Washington, DC for 1937. Marshall received permission from the league to move the NFL title game to the Polo Grounds in New York City. Despite the neutral site, 29,545 fans filled the horseshoe-shaped stadium to see who would be crowned NFL champion.
The Packers and Redskins had met twice during the regular season with the Pack beating Boston 31-2 at home in Week 4 and again 7-3 in Week 8 in Boston.
The Packers struck first after a Boston turnover. Riley Smith fumbled on the Redskins first possession and Lou Gordon recovered for Green Bay at the Packers 46. After two running plays gained 5 yards, Herber threw a beautiful long pass to Hutson at the Boston 20. He ran untouched into the end zone for a 48-yard score and the Pack led 7-0.
The Redskins got on the board on the first play of the second quarter when Pug Retner ran off right tackle from two yards out. But Riley Smith missed the extra point and Green Bay still led 7-6. Smith had been successful on his previous 15 PAT attempts, an incredible streak for a straightaway kicker back in those days.
Smith had a chance to put the Redskins in the lead later in the second quarter but missed a 29-yard field goal try. The Packers led at the half 7-6.
The second half was all Green Bay. A 52-yard pass from Herber to Johnny “Blood” McNally set up an eight-yard touchdown pass to Milt Gantenbein. Ernie Smith’s PAT gave the Pack a 14-6 lead.
The Packers defense was tough and held Boston without a first down in the second half. Lon Evans blocked a Redskins punt and Hutson fell on the loose ball at the Boston 2-yard line. Bob Monnett scored off the right side from two yards out to make it 20-6 with Tiny Engebresten’s PAT giving the Packers a 21-6 margin of victory.
Overall, Herber finished the game by completing 6-of-14 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Hutson grabbed five passes for 76 yards and a score. Hinkle led all Packers rushers with 58 tough yards on 16 carries. Five different Boston players attempted passes in this game and they were a combined 7-of-26 for 81 yards.
Each Green Bay player earned approximately $250 for winning the title while the losing Redskins players had to settle for about $180 each.
This was the fourth championship win for the Green Bay franchise.
One year later, the Redskins would move to Washington, DC, and emerge as champions in 1937 behind a rookie quarterback out of TCU named Sammy Baugh. The Packers would have another successful season, finishing 7-4-0 but tied for second place in the West behind the Bears.
This was the first NFL title game played at a neutral site, a forerunner of the Super Bowl 30 years later.
For the Packers franchise, this was their first postseason game and victory. For Don Hutson, Johnny “Blood” McNally, Arnie Herber and the rest of the 1936 Packers, it was an unforgettable championship.
Hutson would help lead the Packers to two more titles, one in 1939 and another in 1944 before he ended his Hall of Fame career.