As the Steelers and Cardinals get ready to clash this Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII, one might think that these teams have little in common. But did you know that this Sunday’s game will be the 68th contest between the clubs? Did you also know that in 1944 the clubs actually combined rosters to form one team?
In the days leading up to and during World War II, our great country and its citizens were forced to make adjustments in order to survive. The NFL was no different.
The 1941 NFL season ended just as the war began and as a result it had little effect on the league that year. The league however would begin to feel the wrath of war in 1942 as NFL players entered the United States armed forces. Like the NFL Draft today takes away the majority of the most talented underclassmen, the military draft took from the NFL most of its better players.
Those players left behind were deemed unacceptable for military service and slapped with the “4F” label – a government classification signifying a detrimental physical condition. What was left behind to fill NFL rosters were the 4F’s and older players not drafted by the military. The NFL owners were forced into a corner and had to choose between continuing play with less than desirable rosters or fold up shop for the war.
Commissioner Elmer Layden decided to try and make it work but structural changes to the league were necessary.
As you may have guessed, the quality of play in 1942 was not nearly up to the standards set prior to the war. Attendance dropped and several teams were on the verge of a collapse. In fact the Cleveland Rams were granted permission to suspend for 1943. The Steelers, Eagles, and the Chicago Cardinals suffered the most. So the league did something almost unheard of – they combined two of the weakest teams the Steelers and Eagles. The Cardinals would try and make it on their own in 1943.
The “Steagles” as they were affectionately known were co-coached by the Eagles’ Earl “Greasy” Neale and the Steelers’ Walt Keisling. Keisling ran the offense, Neale the defense. The Players had to work during the day in government defense jobs, practiced at night and were paid $125.00 a game.
Neale and Keisling fought throughout the season yet in spite of the less than harmonic co-existence the team with running back Jack Hinkle setting the pace (570 yards), led the league in rushing with 1,730 yards. They were surprisingly competitive and posted a 5-4-1 record, good for a second place finish in the Eastern Conference. Their attendance was within the league average for the season.
The “Steagles” played some of their home games in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, others at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and wore the Eagles’ uniforms. The merger dissolved at the end of the season but it proved that the formula could work to keep the weaker teams and the league alive.
The Cardinals on the other hand suffered through a winless season and had the league’s worst attendance. They were about to fold in 1943.
1944 Steelers – Cardinals
The Eagles were able to stand on their own for 1944 and finished 7-1-2. They were led by rookie running back Steve van Buren and almost won the Eastern Conference, finishing a half game behind the Giants. The Rams returned to the league for 1944 and won 4 of 10 games and drew a decent amount of fans. The Steelers though continued to struggle for survival and as a result they were granted league permission to merge again for the 1944 season. This time their bunk mate would be the Cardinals – a team in worse shape than the Steelers.
The newly formed team would officially become known as Card-Pitt, but fans and players alike nicknamed them the “Carpets”. Keisling again co-coached, along with Cardinals coach Phil Handler. They would play three home games in Pittsburgh and two in Chicago but drew few fans. The “Carpets” lost every game and featured the lowest ranked defense in the league, allowing almost 10 more points a game than the next closest defense. They had the second to worst offense in the league as they were held below 10 points in 7 of their 10 games. The closest they came to winning was on opening day when they lost 30-28 to the re-born Cleveland Rams.
With players in short supply, kicking specialists were very hard to find and consequently the “Carpets” tied a NFL record by kicking no field goals. Their only offense came from fullback John Grigas who gained 610 yards rushing, finishing second in the league while carrying the ball on 70% of the Carpets’ plays. They finished 0-10 and the Card-Pitt merger dissolved on the last day of the season.
Despite the challenges that would threaten the existence of both team in 1945, they eventually made it as the NFL along with the rest of the country rebounded economically, post World War II.
Sixty-four years after combining to form one of the worst teams in NFL history and working to keep each other afloat during the league’s toughest part of its history, these teams will reunite to meet on the grandest and most lucrative sports stage this Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.