Worst Day In NFL History? Followed Up By One of the Best?

Ever wonder what was the worst individual performance in NFL history?  This is, of course, subjective.  Here’s one for you to think about.  Jim Hardy of the Chicago Cardinals threw the most interceptions in a game – a whopping 8 “completions” to the other colored jerseys.

The thing is, the next game he totally turned it around, having a great game en route to a nomination as an All-Pro Quarterback after the 1950 season.  This week’s episode of When Football Was Football covers the game in depth.

  See the full blog post below.

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.

The Worst Day in NFL History?

In a strange twist of fate back in 1950, one quarterback experienced the very worst game in the history of the NFL, yet bounced back to be named an All-Pro in the very same season!

This is the story of one Jim Hardy, a war veteran and accomplished field general who enjoyed a seven-year stay in the NFL from 1946-1952 with the Rams, Cardinals, and Lions. He was also a fierce competitor, as exemplified by this quote (regarding face masks) from the Coffin Corner published by the Professional Football Researchers Association in 1996:

I feel the use of the face mask has drastically changed the game. In my day, no one wore them unless they had a busted nose. I don’t care how rough the guy was, he didn’t want a fist or a football in his face, so if someone got a little too aggressive, we’d just throw a pass into his face. Now, with those bird cages, they can rush with reckless abandon and not worry about broken teeth or noses. This makes a great difference in the game. ~ Jim Hardy

Jim Hardy From USC to the NFL

Jim was a walk-on at the University of Southern California and almost left school after the first semester due to the cost of his education. With the addition of a scholarship, his role on both sides of the ball increased and he was eventually named the most valuable player in USC’s 25-0 win over Tennessee in the 1945 Rose Bowl.

He quickly joined the U.S. Navy and later discovered that he was the first round draft choice of the Washington Redskins in the 1945 draft. Hardy ended up back in his home state of California for three professional  seasons with the Rams where he was fourth in the NFL in passing yards in 1948 and was the best in the league that year with the lowest interception rate of just 3.3% among all passers.

It seemed logical that the Chicago Cardinals might be interested in procuring Hardy, even though the team still had Paul Christman and Ray Mallouf at the quarterback position for another season. However, in one game during the 1948 campaign, Hardy completed 28 of 53 passes against the Cardinals for a whopping 406 yards.

Hardy to the Chicago Cardinals

So, on September 7, 1949, the Cards announced that they had purchased Hardy from the Rams for cash and a future draft choice. With Mallouf suffering a shoulder injury early in the season, Christman and Hardy basically shared the starting QB position.

Despite limited playing time in 1949, Hardy still passed for 748 yards and ten touchdowns. In 1950, new Cardinals’ coach Curly Lambeau hoped to help the Cardinals improve on their 6-5-1 record and eagerly prepared his club for the opener on September 24, 1950, against the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles.

While September 24, 1950, may be recalled as the opening day of the NFL season, or perhaps as the first game for the Cardinals under Curly Lambeau, more than likely it is recalled as quarterback Jim Hardy’s really, really bad day. Philadelphia trounced the Cardinals 45-7, as Hardy tossed an NFL record eight interceptions to a variety of Eagles’ defenders!

Yet, as usual, there is more to this story…

First of all, Lambeau shocked the football world on September 22, just two days before the game, by selling veteran Paul Christman to the Green Bay Packers. It was a surprising move, especially since Christman was slated to be the starting signal-caller for the Cardinals.

During his five years with the south siders, Christman captured all of the team’s passing records, including yardage and touchdowns, and led the team to the 1947 NFL championship. Lambeau claimed that he had too many quarterbacks, thus necessitating the sale.

But, hold on, the Packers insisted that Christman was plucked off the waiver list and Green Bay president Emil Fischer stated that: “We have given the Cardinals no draft choices, players or money. We just made a satisfactory deal.”

Worst Day in NFL History

Whatever the circumstances, Hardy had precious little time to prepare for the Eagles which in itself might have been a valid reason for his dubious performance. And yet, there is more…

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004, Hardy bravely recounted his long afternoon. He said: “I should have known it would be a bad day when I totaled my car on the way to Comiskey Park. Some guy ran a stop sign and just wiped me out. I got there (to the game) just in time to take the field. I wish now I hadn’t.”

With virtually no warm up time and possibly playing with a concussion or other injury from the accident, Hardy was quickly overwhelmed by the aggressive Eagles’ defense. The Chicago Tribune reported that: “Philadelphia scored six minutes and 45 seconds after the game started when halfback Bud Sutton made the first of his three interceptions on the Eagle 40.

Ten plays later Tommy Thompson passed seven yards to Pete Pihos for the score.” By halftime, the Eagles were comfortably ahead 31-0 thanks in part to two more Hardy interceptions and a lost fumble by the QB.

At the half, the dazed Hardy was numb and later told the Sun-Times: “I had three interceptions in the first half. I went into the dressing room at halftime, put my elbows on my knees, my head in my lap and thought, ‘what could be worse?’ Little did I know there would be five more to come. What a nightmare!”

And then there was a third plausible reason for Hardy’s endless afternoon. Reserve quarterback Frank Tripucka replaced Hardy for just three plays before injuring his knee, prompting Hardy’s return to the field and five more interceptions in the second half. Once again, Sutton was involved with the final interception of the game and the resulting extraordinary play, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer:

         The most spectacular example of the Birds’ heads-up play was the result of those two products of Philadelphia’s northeast section, Bud Sutton and Frank Reagan. The former [Sutton], of Northeast High and Temple, grabbed off an errant throw and whisked back 32 yards on a weaving run before being nailed on the Cards’ 46. But almost as if it had been rehearsed, Sutton lateraled to Reagan, who shot into the open, disdained a possible block and outran a lone defender to the end zone.

It was the last score of the day and when the clock finally expired with the Eagles ahead 45-7, Hardy had unfortunately snared the record for most interceptions in a game—a mark that still stands today. Eight. The Philadelphia Inquirer enjoyed the barrage of interceptions by the Eagles talented defenders:

Much of the champions’ success was due to their facility for picking off enemy passes. They shortstopped so many of Jim Hardy’s aerials that it was conjectural which team the former Southern Cal star was pitching to. Russ Craft stole four. Bud Sutton filched three and Frank Reagan reversed the direction of one.

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    Interview With Bud Sutton's Son

    In an interview for this podcast, we contacted Jack Sutton, the son of ace Eagles’ defender Bud Sutton, who picked off three of Hardy’s passes that day back in 1950. Jack Sutton is rightfully proud of his father Bud, who like many other NFL stars in the late 40s was a tough, no-nonsense defender and WWII vet. Jack said:

    Dad was great at whatever sport he played and was a real tough man. He never took crap from anyone. The knuckles on his hands were all pushed down from football and when you look at the old films you can see that his hands are always taped up. In the game against Hardy, he said Hardy was in an accident on the way to the game. My dad said it was one of the best games he ever played in pro football. Dad is still in the record books for most interceptions in one game.

    Indeed, two of the Eagles’ defenders from that game still rank as the top two all-time for the team in game interceptions: at the top is Russ Craft, who picked off four of Hardy’s passes, and then tied for second after 70 years is Bud Sutton with three.

    After that awful game experience, Hardy went out to dinner with halfback Charley Trippi and lineman Plato Andros and their wives. Hardy recalled that “at one point, Charley said, ‘Jim, would you please pass the salt?’ Plato, in his Oklahoma drawl, said: ‘Charley, don’t ask Jim to pass anything. It’ll just be intercepted!'”

    Jim Hardy Bounces Back

    But there is a bright spot in this woeful saga. Just a week later in a rare Monday night home game, the Cardinals and Hardy bounced back to thrash Baltimore 53-13. Hardy fired six TD passes, including a league record of five to receiver Bob Shaw. The contest started off quietly when Hardy tossed a short first-half toss to Shaw…

    But, no–the ref declared the pass incomplete and set off the normally polite Mr. Shaw according to the Chicago Tribune: “The officials may merit an assist in building a fire under the Chicagoans for their weird decisions made the Cardinals hot with anger. Shaw tossed the ball at the official and was charged with unsportsmanlike conduct as the Cardinals became angry at the world in general.”

    Behind 13-7 at the half, Shaw and Hardy then took out their frustrations on the woeful Colts. Hardy threw for those six TD passes that day and Shaw grabbed five of those throws to establish an NFL record that still stands for most TD receptions in one game (later tied by Kellen Winslow in 1981 and Jerry Rice in 1990).

    Of course, the rough and tumble Cardinals of old couldn’t help themselves to another (then) NFL mark in typical fashion. The team was called for 13 penalties for a record 140 yards to eclipse the record of 136 yards set by the Boston Yankees in 1948!

    Quarterback Jim Hardy went on to be named to the All-Pro team after the 1950 season. His six TD passes against the Colts established a new Cardinals‘ team record while he finished third in the NFL with 17 touchdown passes and eighth in passing yards. Hardy also topped the league by leading the Cards to four game-winning drives, and as the punter for the Cardinals, he also had the league’s longest punt of the year with a 76 yarder as the club finished 5-7 in Lambeau’s first year.

    It was a fitting, and successful, conclusion for Jim Hardy in which the talented quarterback suffered the most agonizing single game in NFL history but then fought his way back to achieve his only All-Pro selection.

    Thank you for listening to this episode and please join us next time for the curious tale of another All-Pro who once risked everything by failing to show up for the last game of his team’s season. We’ll find out if his absence was perhaps justified under some very unique circumstances…

    Interested in more from host Joe Ziemba?  You can see him on the other side of the mic as a guest on The Football History Dude podcast talking about the history of the Chicago Cardinals and his book When Football Was Football.

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