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|Date||December 4, 1921|
|Stadium||Cubs Park, Chicago, Illinois|
The 1921 NFL Championship controversy, known among Buffalo sports historians and fans as the Staley Swindle, is a dispute in which the Buffalo All-Americans unintentionally surrendered the 1921 APFA Championship title to the Chicago Staleys (later renamed the Chicago Bears). The controversy began at the conclusion of the 1921 season, when the All-Americans finished the season with the best record in the American Professional Football Association (renamed the National Football League in 1922). However, after losing what the All-Americans owner had intended to be an exhibition game to the Staleys on December 4, 1921, the All-Americans lost their title to Chicago on a tiebreaker.
The Buffalo All-Americans finished 1921 with a 9-0-2 record; meanwhile, Chicago captured second place with its only loss coming against Buffalo on Thanksgiving. The Staleys refused to play any road games that season except for their Thanksgiving game against the then-undefeated All-Americans, who also had played all of their games at home. Chicago owner George Halas then challenged the All-Americans to a rematch. Buffalo owner, Frank McNeil, having already scheduled the team's last game for December 3 against the Akron Pros, agreed on the condition that it be considered only a "post-season exhibition match" and not be counted in the standings. McNeil also made a point of telling the Buffalo media that the two games were exhibitions and would have no bearing on the team's claim to the APFA title; to this extent, McNeil released the players he had borrowed from the then-defunct Detroit Tigers NFL team to play one last exhibition game under the Tigers banner (the same day as the Staleys/All-Americans matchup, the Tigers played the Detroit Maroons; McNeil made one exception and kept lineman Clarence "Steamer" Horning, who would incidentally score the All-Americans' only points in the Staleys rematch by recovering a blocked punt for a touchdown). He then scheduled the game against the Staleys the day after the team's final game against Akron. Therefore, after a game, scheduled for December 3 against the tough Akron Pros, McNeil's team would take an all-night train to Chicago to play the Staleys the next day.
The All-Americans defeated the Pros, 14-0, then boarded a train for Chicago. Furthermore, several of the All-Americans apparently bolted; the All-Americans had restocked their roster from the officially defunct Detroit Tigers football team as a result of a moonlighting controversy between the All-Americans and the Union Quakers of Philadelphia in November of that year; however, the Tigers re-formed on December 4 (the same day the All-Americans faced Chicago) and played the non-league Detroit Maroons to a scoreless tie. Despite the defections and being worn out from the previous game, the All-Americans held their own against the Staleys, and as late as the third quarter, the game was tied; a field goal from Dutch Sternaman broke the tie and won the game for Chicago, 10-7. McNeil continued to assert that his team was the AFPA's 1921 champion, and even invested in tiny gold footballs for his players to commemorate the achievement. After all, even with the loss, Buffalo was still 9-1-2, and Chicago was at the time still 8-1--a half-game behind Buffalo in the standings (Buffalo played more games earlier in the season). If the season ended that day, Buffalo would still have won the league title. Chicago, however, saw their opportunity, and swiftly scheduled two games in December: one against the Canton Bulldogs, and the other against their crosstown rivals, the Chicago Cardinals. Winning both would have propelled Chicago to 10-1, a half-game ahead of Buffalo and assuring the team of the championship. The Staleys defeated Canton, 10-0, on December 11, but managed only to reach a scoreless tie with the Cardinals on December 18. Thus, the two teams were now tied at 9-1 (ties did not count in the APFA standings at the time).
Halas decided to declare that the title belonged to Chicago and began to persuade the other owners in the league to give his Staleys the title. Halas based his claim for the championship on his belief that the second game of the Buffalo-Chicago series mattered more than the first. He also pointed out that the aggregate score of the two games was 16-14 in favor of the Staleys. McNeil insisted that Buffalo was the champion and maintained that the last two games his team played were merely exhibitions, to which Halas rebutted that there were no such things as exhibitions, since no set end of the season existed, and thus, according to him, all games had to be counted, whether Buffalo intended them to or not. (Notably, both the All-Americans and the Staleys disputed the previous year's title, but were both overruled and the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup went to the Akron Pros.)
The league then instituted the first-ever tiebreaker for the championship. The new rule stated that a rematch counts more than a first matchup, which handed the championship to Chicago. This tiebreaker has since been discontinued by the NFL in favor of a more complicated set. In their decision, based on a generally accepted (but now obsolete) rule that if two teams play each other more than once in a season, the second game counts more than the first, the executive committee followed established tradition. Had Buffalo not played the last game (or if it had not been counted per Buffalo's wishes), they would have had an undefeated season and won the title.
The winner of the game was supposed to have received possession of the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup, the championship trophy established as a rotating prize the previous season. The Staleys never received the cup (nor did, for that matter, the All-Americans), and it is now considered lost.
Meanwhile, McNeil eventually went to his grave trying to get the league's decision overturned. Buffalo never again reached the level of success they did in the 1918-1921 period; the franchise barely stayed over .500 for the next three seasons, after which the team fell to the bottom of the league in the standings for most of the rest of the decade, suspending operations in 1927 and folding in 1929.
The Professional Football Researchers Association has recognized both sides of the debate. Jeffrey J. Miller, who coined the phrase "Staley Swindle" to describe the controversy, has argued most fervently that the All-Americans were wronged by the league's decision, which stands to the present day. Kenneth Crippen, in contrast, has noted that Buffalo's competition was not as stiff and that, overall, the Staleys had a better season when factoring in margins of victory and strength of schedule. Ultimately the legitimacy of Buffalo's claim to the title rests on whether the game in question was on or off the record.
The league was also forced to place a finite end to the season to prevent a repeat of this incident. In 1924, when Chicago attempted to do the same thing with a post-season match against the Cleveland Bulldogs, the league disallowed it, meaning the Bulldogs kept their title, and banned the use of postseason championship games. This rule was rescinded in 1932 after Chicago (now known as the Bears) and the Portsmouth Spartans finished tied for first in the standings, and the tiebreaker was not applicable as both their games had ended in ties, which forced the league to schedule a playoff game to settle the dispute.
The NFL Championship Game would become permanent in 1933 when the NFL divided into Eastern and Western divisions and standardized its schedule, with the "greater weight to a later game" tiebreaker being formally abolished.
Since there were no championship games in 1921, the championship was once again decided by a vote of the Association's executive committee in January 1922. The executive committee ruled that the Chicago Staleys were the champions, based on the generally accepted rule that if two teams play each other more than once in a season, the second game counts more than the first. Buffalo and Chicago played on Thanksgiving Day, with Buffalo winning 7-6. The second game was held December 4. This time, Chicago won 10-7. Buffalo claimed that the second game was just a post-season "exhibition" game, and it should not count in the final standings. Chicago claimed that the Association did not have a set date for the end of the season, therefore the second game could not have been held in the "post-season."