We all know the respective histories of the two teams playing in the Super Bowl this weekend. The Steelers are one of the proudest, most successful franchises of the modern era while the Cardinals, uh, aren’t. But you may not have known that the two franchises actually joined forces for one season — and became perhaps the worst team in NFL history (though I know some folks in the great state of Michigan who might disagree with that assessment).
As the 1944 NFL season was being planned, there were 11 teams that wanted to play. But the scheduling of a league with an odd number of teams was too difficult to figure out, so NFL commissioner Elmer Layden asked Steelers owner Art Rooney and Chicago Cardinals owner Charles Bidwell to merge. They did, and the team known as Card-Pitt was born. They were so bad, though, that one Pittsburgh sportswriter said they should call themselves the Car-Pitts because “every team in the league walks over them.”
The AP’s Ben Walker describes just how bad the Car-Pitts were in their lone year of existence:
At 0-10, the ragtag outfit got outscored by an average of three touchdowns per game; threw a record 41 interceptions; and set a league mark that still stands for the worst punting.
Team management fined three players for “indifferent play” after a 34-7 loss to the defending champion Bears.
None of their quarterbacks could run the popular T-formation, and the famed “Notre Dame box” didn’t work, either. Military commitments caused chaos with the roster, and replacements signed off the sandlots showed up in Pittsburgh for practice.
Somewhat stunningly, the team actually beat the league runner-up Giants 17-16 in Pittsburgh, but the game counted as only an exhibition. The team played a couple of home games at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a couple at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, and their final one in Philadelphia. That last game was so bad, their best player just decided he’d had enough and left early:
Beset by fights, fines and suspensions in a rough-and-tumble era, there was hardly a Ben Roethlisberger or Larry Fitzgerald among them. Their lone ace, Johnny Grigas, threw away his leather helmet and skipped town before it was over.
About an hour before the wrap-up, a 49-7 rout by the Bears at Forbes Field, the Car-Pitts discovered Grigas already was on a train.
The former Holy Cross star left a note for his hotel roommate. “This is the end,” Grigas wrote, saying he didn’t care to finish up on a frozen field.
“I thought he’d gone to become a priest,” Bulger said. “He’d had enough.”
Grigas was really a running back who was forced to play quarterback because the other guy, John McCarthy, threw no touchdowns and 13 interceptions and posted a 3.0 QB rating. Their original QB, Coley McDonough, was drafted into the military after the first regular-season game.
The Cardinals were bad enough by themselves — they were in the midst of a 29-game losing streak — and the Steelers had played the previous season in a merger with Philadelphia (called the “Steagles”).
Somehow, the teams eventually got it together. Both made the playoffs in 1947, with the Steelers losing a division tie-breaker to the Eagles. The Cardinals won their most recent NFL Championship that year. The Steelers wouldn’t win a title until 1974.