Chicago Cardinals and the Longest Losing Streak in NFL History

During the early part of the 2021 NFL season, there has been much discussion about the growing length of the losing streak compiled by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Losing streaks are certainly not worthy of a badge of honor, but they are certainly great topics of discussion!

When Jacksonville recently dropped its 19th straight game, it marked just the fifth time in history that a club experienced that regrettable distinction. In fact, since the Super Bowl began in 1967, it was only the third time that an NFL organization suffered that many consecutive setbacks. Jacksonville equaled the Detroit Lions mark of 19 losses in a row from 2007-2009, but both teams still fell short of the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During the 1976-1977 seasons, the Bucs lost 26 straight games, the second-worst such streak in NFL history.

But today, we’ll look back at the longest losing mark in NFL history from a team that was on the short end of the score 29 straight times. 29 straight losses? Is that possible in today’s age of parity? It’s possible, but the team holding this dismal record found every conceivable way to lose 29 ball games.

It managed to keep the streak alive due to player disappearances, bad luck, poor play, and even a punter knocking himself out on one of his kicks. It is a streak of hopelessness and humor, ugly play and valiant efforts, but it is still, unfortunately, the worst ever. For nearly three full years, this team never saw daylight.

So, in this episode of “When Football Was Football” we’ll take a closer look at the Chicago Cardinals from 1942 through 1945, the holders of the record that every coach wants to avoid in his career, although some have strayed very close to doing so!

Paul Christman Responsible For Streak?

So, who was responsible for the Cardinals’ losing streak? We’ll be brave here, and instead of beating around the bush and saying it was a team effort (which it was), we’re going to pinpoint the exact reason. It was quarterback Paul Christman. 

Who then was responsible for ending the long, hopeless streak? Once again, we’ll name Paul Christman and we’ll explain in a moment exactly why Mr. Christman found himself on both ends of the longest losing streak in NFL history… 

On October 18, 1942, the Cardinals edged the Detroit Lions 7-0 when halfback Bob Morrow scored on a fourth-quarter run. Things were looking up for the 1942 Cards, since the team, under Coach Jimmy Conzelman, moved to 3-2 on the season and equaled its win total from 1941 when the club finished 3-7-1.

The following week, however, the Cards failed to score twice in the fourth quarter from inside the five-yard line of the Cleveland Rams and lost a tight 7-3 decision. That would turn out to be the closest the Cardinals would come to denting the win column again in 1942 as they lost five more games to finish 3-8 with those last six losses arriving in succession. But where was Paul Christman? 

Christman was the prize catch for the Cardinals in the 1941 NFL draft, an All-American quarterback from the University of Missouri. He was such a gifted passer that his nickname, even in college, was Pitchin’ Paul, a well-deserved moniker after Christman led the nation in passing in 1940!

The Cardinals landed Christman in the draft along with fullback John Kimbrough of Texas. Conzelman was confident that these two would quickly reverse the recent misfortunes of the Cardinals. However, Kimbrough found employment with the New York Yankees football team and Christman encountered other challenges that would prohibit him from playing. On September 14, 1941, the Chicago Tribune noted: “Through no fault of his own, Christman has given the Cardinal management some beautiful headaches.

First, he wasn’t sure if he would play professional football. Then, after he had decided to join the Cardinals, the army put in a hurry-up call to him. Paul countered by joining the naval reserve. Only yesterday afternoon it was definitely learned that Christman will be too busy with his naval duties to play with the Cardinals.”

 And so, the gifted Christman, who Conzelman expected to rely on for his passing and leadership for years, would not be seen in a Cardinals’ uniform until 1945.

Conzelman Leaves The Cardinals

During the off-season after the 1942 campaign, Coach Conzelman decided to retire from pro football and took a position with baseball’s St. Louis Browns. Owner Charles Bidwill named former Cardinals player and assistant coach Phil Handler to head the team in 1943.

It would turn out to be a thankless job as the Cardinals fumbled, stumbled, and bumbled through an 0-10 season. Of course, there were reasons for this monument to ineptitude as the winless record might attest. The loss of players to the service during WWII affected the Cardinals in 1943 as it did every other NFL team at the time.

In addition, the Cards’ leading offensive force, halfback Marshall Goldberg, was lost for the season due to an injury suffered in a pre-season game. The Chicago Tribune speculated that finding a replacement for the multi-talented Goldberg would not be easy: “All these fellows will have to make up for the loss of Goldberg, who was all of these: a running threat, defensive specialist, safety man, and signal-caller.”

Punter Knocks Himself Out!

In the end, the loss of Goldberg, although not necessarily the only reason, would be a primary contributor to the collapse of the 1943 season. The Cardinals were blown out by Detroit in the opener 35-14, followed by a whipping from Washington 43-21 in a game played in Buffalo, New York. These first two defeats were followed by eight more defeats as the Cardinals finished 0-10 for the abbreviated season.

This was the first winless slate in the history of the franchise, and the long season grew longer as the lack of depth and the usual injuries engulfed the squad. Big (6’6”) end Clint Wager, recently acquired from the Chicago Bears, went down early as the result of a highly unusual practice injury. While practicing his kicking, Wager missed the ball on a punting attempt and slammed his knee into his head! The result: he fractured his own skull with his botched boot! Wager eventually recovered to continue his dual career as both a pro football and a pro basketball player.

The losing streak was at 15 when the Cardinals met the Bears in the final game of the 1943 season. In a wild surprise, the Cards jumped out to a 24-14 lead over the Bears early in the fourth quarter. Could this be the end of the streak? Those dreams were quickly shattered by the not-so-fancy footwork of one Bronko Nagurski, who returned to the Bears in 1943 after retiring from football in 1937. Nagurski had been signed as a tackle in 1943, but, due to injuries, was used again as a fullback against the Cardinals.

Nagurski responded by picking up 84 yards on 15 carries that day and scoring the first of three touchdowns for the Bears in the fourth quarter leading to a 35-24 victory. The desperate Cardinals had now sunk into the mire of defeat 16 straight times.

Card-Pitts Lose Ten Straight In 1944

As bad as things went in 1943, they became worse in 1944. Several more key Cardinals reported for military duty, including what might have been considered the entire 1943 backfield: Marshall Goldberg, Bob Morrow, Joe Bukant, and Ronnie Cahill. At least forty-two Chicago Cardinals were now in the service, with Motts Tonelli still in captivity with the Japanese and former end John Shirk being held by the German army.

(The compelling tale of Motts Tonelli was covered in a previous episode of “When Football Was Football” on the Sports History Network.)

As the losing skein sat at 16 games, the Cardinals were thought to be improved somewhat in 1944 when they merged temporarily with Pittsburgh. In fact, some folks around the league indicated that the combined rosters of the team, now known as the Card-Pitts, would easily be the class of the NFL that season.

That, of course, never happened as the Card-Pitts distinguished themselves as probably the worst team in the history of the NFL. The final record of 0-10 was certainly well deserved as the team was rarely competitive. Cardinals’ tackle Chet Bulger summed up the essence of the season by later stating: “We would get beat so bad, we were ready to cry!”

The official team name of the Card-Pitts quickly evolved into the satirical “Carpets.” And why not? Every team in the NFL simply walked all over them like your great aunt’s favorite shag carpet!

    Christman Returns To End The Streak

     Now with ten more losses in 1944, the losing streak was set at 26 straight with no end in sight. Or was there? With the war ending in 1945, many veterans returned to play pro football, including the aforementioned Paul Christman.

    The Cardinals were no longer attached to the Steelers in 1945 and confidently wandered into three more quick losses to open the season. In those three defeats, the Cards scored a mere six points while giving up 57. It would be difficult to win without putting points on the board.

    Then the rumors started that Christman was only days away from his discharge.

    The Chicago Tribune stated on September 20, 1945: “If Paul shows his college form with the Cardinals, the league’s doormat team may start the long, laborious post-war climb it has been talking about.” Two weeks later, Christman made his long-awaited debut in a 21-6 loss to the Eagles—the 29th straight loss for the Cardinals.

    Next up for the Cardinals would be the cross-town rival Bears, who had already won three NFL titles in the 1940s and would win again in 1946. Christman completed just 10-36 passes against the Eagles, but his accuracy was there if the sure hands of the receivers were not, dropping several of Christman’s tosses.

    Perhaps with the incentive of having the dangerous Christman in the lineup, the Cardinals went out on October 14, 1945, and upended the Bears 16-7 to finally end the 29-game losing effort. The Tribune reported that “Paul Christman…figured prominently in the victory.”

    The Cardinals’ defense held the Bears to just 17 yards on the ground while quarterback Sid Luckman completed 13 of 26 tosses for 196 yards. Christman’s numbers were not spectacular, picking up only 86 yards through the air, but his leadership of the offense helped the Cards pick up 241 yards on the ground.

    The good feeling of the victory did not last long as the Cardinals lost their last six games to finish 1-9. However, the stage was set as Christman and the Dream Backfield led the Cardinals to the NFL championship just two years later in 1947.

    But the experience of returning from war to the 1945 version of the Cardinals was something that Christman never forgot. When asked in an interview what was his most hazardous experience from the war years, Christman quickly responded: “Playing behind the ’45 Cardinals line!”

    Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football.” We hope you’ll be with us next time as we take a peek into the world of rugged train travel of teams playing in the 1940s as we examine: “The Worst Road Trip in NFL History.” Thank you! 

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    Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

    Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

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