The Pittsburgh Panthers and Steelers both caught a bad case of the penalty bug over the weekend, with the former racking up 14 penalties for 116 yards in a blowout 51-6 loss to Penn State on Saturday and the latter getting flagged 12 times for 116 yards in an ugly 21-21 tie with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Constant flags make for an unenjoyable viewership experience — especially when most of the calls are against your team. After this weekend, Pittsburgh sports fans were probably left dreaming of a football game decided by the players alone, free of interference by any higher subjective authority, where the refs take a step back and “let the boys play.”
Coincidentally enough, such a game has happened before in NFL history — and the last time was just down the street at former Forbes Field on Nov. 10, 1940. Like Saturday’s “Keystone Clash,” this affair featured two in-state rivals duking it out in rainy conditions.
More than 70 years have gone by since the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Philadelphia Eagles 7-3 in the league’s last flagless game.
“A gridiron insurance policy which the Pittsburgh Steelers have carried in their programs all season paid a big dividend yesterday,” the Monday sports lead of the 1940 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette read, “when Colin McDonough, reserve halfback, who has been going along just for the train ride all autumn, came off the bench and sparked the Rooney eleven to its second victory of the season…”
These two Pennsylvania teams entered the contest as two of the worst in the young NFL. Philadelphia sat winless at the bottom of the five-team Eastern Division standings, with Pittsburgh perched just above at a record of 1-6-2. The Eagles set a still-standing NFL record that year for the fewest rushing yards in a season, finishing with just 298.
Only 9,556 fans — including 3,000 children who were admitted for free — watched from the stands as these two bottom-of-the-barrel foes waged a battle of attrition in the Forbes Field sludge. The Eagles scored first, on a play that represents just how far the NFL today has come from the game back then, when left tackle and placekicker George Somers converted a 36-yard field goal attempt.
Maybe the 2018 Steelers would have garnered the same success sending left tackle Alejandro Villanueva to kick the game-winning field goal attempt versus the Browns on Sunday, instead of kicker Chris Boswell.
But back to 1940 — the two teams sloshed around and accomplished essentially nothing for the next two quarters, until the journeyman McDonough and the Steelers’ offense finally put together a third-quarter scoring drive best-phrased by former Post-Gazette sportswriter Jack Sell.
“Like gridiron heroes in the movies, McDonough suddenly shed his obscurity as a lowly third-stringer and crashed the headlines as he featured a brilliant 55-yard parade to the winning touchdown,” Sell wrote.
The Steelers would hold on in the fourth quarter for the 7-3 win — just their second of the season, which marked an improvement over the previous year’s one-win campaign. A small note acknowledged the game’s noteworthy feat at the top right of the Monday Post-Gazette sports section — “No Penalties in Steelers-Eagles Game.”
Aside from head referee William Halloran’s reluctance to throw a single flag, this 1940 contest would have been quite unremarkable. There was nothing significant at stake, except perhaps a chance to clinch second to last place in the division. The Steelers attempted five passes and competed only one, while the Eagles rushed for an abysmal 70 yards.
Maybe Halloran realized early on that this would be his one chance to achieve fame and notoriety. It’s possible — he officiated one of the only three other no-penalty NFL games in 1936, but a different reffing crew accomplished the feat again in 1938, so the pressure was on to one-up them and become the last to do it.
It’s also possible that Halloran suffered some injury that prohibited him from moving his arm in a throwing motion to issue the flags — or maybe the two teams truly put on the most recent display of pure, clean football, played within the confines of the rulebook. We’ll never know for sure, but as the years go on and new penalties are concocted, the legacy of this Forbes Field phenomenon will only continue to grow.
Just the day before, and appearing on the same 1940 page of the Post-Gazette, the Pitt Panthers took on Carnegie Tech. Although the 6-0 Panther victory was similarly ugly and low-scoring, it fell on the complete opposite end of the penalty spectrum.
“The number of penalties in the game … must be close to a local record, and there were field generals in the press box who thought that another series or so was overlooked by the officials who probably failed to see them out of sheer exhaustion,” the Post-Gazette wrote.
The Panthers were flagged 12 times, so apparently not all referees back then were as negligent as Halloran. This also goes to show that penalty issues are nothing new for Pitt football, and the football team at Carnegie Tech — now known as Carnegie Mellon — might not be as big of a pushover as some believe.