Even in the run heavy days of the 1940s, quarterbacks were high profile players. Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman and Bob Waterfield were bonafide superstars of the NFL. For three years, the Eagles' Tommy Thompson was their equal.
Undrafted out of Tulsa in 1940, Thompson was a defensive back and backup quarterback on the Steelers for one season, then released. He joined the Eagles for the 1941 season, and claimed the starting QB job over the wholly ineffective Len Barnum, who threw no touchdowns and 10 interceptions in only 55 pass attempts. Thompson finished the season fourth in the league in passing yards and touchdown passes, thanks in part to the 2-8-1 Eagles constantly being behind, though he was only fourth in the league in attempts. He also caught four passes for 30 yards, including one for a touchdown. In 1942 the Eagles were slightly worse, going 2-9, but Thompson finished third in passing yards. He made the 1942 All Star Team, which back then was played against the defending champions, which was the Redskins. The league discontinued this exhibition game in 1943. Illustrating how rudimentary passing was during this time, Thompson was 3rd in the league in passer rating in both 1941 and 1942… with ratings of 51.4 and 50.3, respectively. He also caught a career high of four interceptions, in his first four seasons he intercepted 12 passes while playing defensive back.
Thompson then missed the 1943 and 1944 seasons due to military service. When he returned to the Eagles during the 1945 season, he found himself behind Roy Zimmerman and Allie Sherman on the depth chart, the trio would split playing time in 1946 as well. Thompson led the Eagles to a 28-24 win over the Redskins after the team fell behind 24-0 at halftime, thanks in part to Thompson’s three interceptions, two of which led to 10 Redskins points. In the offseason Zimmerman was traded to the Lions and Thompson was given the starting job for 1947, which he would keep for the rest of his career.
It was then that Thompson and the Eagles took off. With Steve Van Buren running behind a dominant offensive line, the offense was bolstered by the addition of Hall of Fame end Pete Pihos. This versatile offense, teamed with an excellent defense and overseen by Hall of Fame head coach Greasy Neale, saw the Eagles become the best team of the late 1940s. In 1947 the Birds had the second highest scoring offense despite ranking only sixth (out of ten) in yards in 1947, leading them to an 8-4 record, tying them for first place with the Steelers. Despite an inconsistent end to the season by Thompson, which saw him throw seven total interceptions in losses to the Boston Yanks and Chicago Cardinals, but only one in wins against the Steelers and Packers, Thompson was sharp as the Eagles won the game 21-0 and a place in the NFL Championship Game thanks to two touchdown passes.
Against the Cardinals in the title game, Thompson completed 27 of 44 passes, then NFL Championship Game records, for 297 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions as the Eagles fell 28-21.
In 1948, the Eagles opened the season with a loss to the Cardinals and a tie with the Rams. They then won back to back 45-0 games against the Giants and Redskins to kick off an 8 game winning streak, which included a third 45-0 win over the Yanks that saw Thompson throw four touchdown passes. The following week, with four games left to go, Thompson threw three touchdowns as the Eagles beat the Redskins 45-21 to clinch a division title. The Eagles finished the season with another 45 point performance, with Thompson again throwing four touchdowns in a 45-21 win over the Lions.
This led to a Championship Game rematch with the Cardinals. In a blizzard, the Eagles won 7-0 on the back of Van Buren’s 98 yards and touchdown, combined the Eagles and Cardinals went 5-23 in the air. Thompson had a 67 yard touchdown called back in the first quarter due to an offsides penalty, but later helped set up Van Buren’s five yard touchdown run with a six yard sneak for a first down to the five yard line. In those days quarterbacks also called plays, Greasy Neale said that Thompson "was the key. He called almost every play and called them right."
1949 saw the Eagles hit another gear. A year after having the second highest scoring offense and defense, the Birds topped the charts in both categories and finished 11-1. Thompson threw two touchdowns and ran for another in a 49-14 win over the Redskins in October, then in the November rematch he threw four touchdowns as the Birds won 44-21 and walked to another division title. Football in the 1940s was nowhere near the quarterback heavy game it is now, but Thompson outdueled his Hall of Fame peers that season. He scored seven touchdowns and threw two interceptions to Baugh's one touchdown and nine interceptions in two games; and he threw three touchdowns and three interceptions against Waterfield's one score and three interceptions, also in two games.
One of those games against Waterfield was the 1949 Championship Game. The Eagles faced not just a new title game opponent, but also a new type of title game bad weather: heavy rain that made the field essentially a mud pit. Thompson attempted only nine passes, completing five for 68 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, Waterfield managed only 10 of 27 for 98 yards and an interception. The star of the game was once again Van Buren, who set a title game record with 196 yards on the ground. The defense pitched a shutout and the Eagles won 14-0.
Then it all fell apart in 1950. Van Buren’s play fell off a cliff and the previously highly efficient Thompson threw 22 interceptions to just 11 touchdowns, the Eagles finished in fourth place with a 6-6 record. Neale was fired and Thompson, after nine seasons in the NFL, hung up his seventeen year old pads and retired at the age of 34. Yes, you read that right. Thompson played with the same set of shoulder pads through high school, college and the NFL. In 1948 a leather factory considered them too far gone to repair, Thompson said they were the best in the world. After retirement he went into coaching, in the Canadian Football League, and in 1953 he had a short comeback with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, he also coached with the Cardinals and the University of Arkansas.
Thompson wasn’t the best in the world but from 1947 to 1949, but he was as efficient as anyone. He led the league in touchdown percentage for three straight years from 1947-1949, led the league in passer rating in 1948 and 1949 after finishing second in 1947, led the league in interception percentage in 1949 after finishing fourth and third respectively in 1947 and 1948, led the league in yards per attempt in 1947 and finished second in 1948 and 1949and his completion percentage was 4th in 1947 and 2nd in both 1948 and 1949. Over that three year period he stacks up extremely well against his Hall of Fame peers:
In addition to an accurate arm, one method by which Thompson was so effective was an early form of play action. With defenses keying in on Van Buren, Thompson would feign a handoff to Van Buren to draw in defenders, concealing the ball on his hip, then pass to an open receiver. "If I missed, I’d just give it to Steve on the next play" he said of the deke. "He’d get the first [down] anyway". Thompson’s confidence wasn’t justifiably limited to just his great running back. Chuck Bednarik, a rookie in 1949, said that Thompson had the "cockiness" that makes a great quarterback. Van Buren agreed with Bednarik, both saying that Thompson felt that nobody could beat the Eagles,
Van Buren lso praised his leadership, and Al Wistert, his captain, lauded Thompson's toughness.
And he had to be, while Thompson was aided by a terrific surrounding cast, he did so with a handicap: he was legally blind in one eye. Hit in the eye by a rock as a child, Thompson had no central vision in his damaged eye. He never used it as a crutch, apparently he didn’t even tell his teammates what eye it was, Wistert said he was pretty sure it was left. Thompson said he had good enough peripheral vision, his teammates joked his blindness made him stand tall in the pocket because he couldn't see an oncoming defender, but also knew that he was just plain tough, able to bounce right back up from a hit in the pocket and get on with the next play.
Thompson's peak wasn't long enough for his career to be considered great, but in that short peak he played as well as those who were. He wasn't the engine of the Eagles great late 1940s teams, but as a highly efficient passer, strong play caller and highly respected teammate by the greats of those championship teams, he wasn't along for the ride either. He is fifth all-time in passing yards in Eagles history. Among passers with just 500 career attempts, only Sonny Jurgensen has a better touchdown percentage, and Thompson is fifth in yards per attempt. It would be generous to say he was a great player, but Tommy Thompson was an important player on a great team, and for that he should not be forgotten.
More of "The Best Eagles I Never Saw"