November 22, 2009

1945: Jim Benton Catches 10 Passes for 303 Yards vs. Lions

End Jim Benton had been a solid receiver for the Cleveland Rams (and one season with the Chicago Bears) since coming into the league in 1938, when he led the league in yards per reception (19.9 on 21 catches). The Rams had not been a winning team, with a 5-5-1 record in 1939 their best since joining the NFL in 1937. But both Benton and the Rams rose to new heights in 1945.

By the time the Rams met up with the Detroit Lions on November 22 for a Thanksgiving showdown at Briggs Stadium, they were sporting a 7-1 record under the guidance of Head Coach Adam Walsh. The Lions were 6-2 and, with just one more week to play in the ten-game season, control of the Western Division was at stake.

Benton had caught 27 passes for 645 yards, resulting in a very healthy 23.9-yard average, with six touchdowns and three hundred-yard games. Coach Walsh had installed the T-formation, and the offense benefited from the arrival of rookie QB Bob Waterfield from UCLA to run it. The 6’3”, 200-pound Benton was his favorite target.

Earlier in the season, Green Bay’s Don Hutson had scored four TDs and accumulated 144 yards against the Lions, which had exposed a deficiency in their pass defense. The Rams took advantage. They broke out to a 21-7 lead in the first half and went on to win 28-21. Benton scored on a 70-yard touchdown pass from Waterfield in the second quarter and, when it was all done, had caught 10 passes for 303 yards.

The 303 yards not only set a new single-game pass receiving yardage record, but remained the NFL record for 40 years until broken by Stephone Paige of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1985 (Cloyce Box of the Lions came within a yard of the record in 1950). It was also the first occasion that any player had accumulated over 300 yards from scrimmage in an NFL game.

Benton accounted for virtually all of Cleveland’s passing yards – Waterfield in all completed 12 of 21 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns. A 17-yard throw to the other end, Steve Pritko, accounted for the second TD pass and most of the remaining yards that didn’t belong to Benton. The rookie quarterback’s showing was especially impressive because he was suffering from a painful rib injury and had been tightly wrapped up by the team’s trainer prior to the game.

With the win, the Rams clinched the West and won again in the season finale (with Benton chalking up his fifth hundred-yard receiving game of the year) to finish with a 9-1 record. They defeated the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship game, as Benton capped his outstanding year with 9 catches for 125 yards and a TD. Detroit remained the runner-up in the Western Division at 7-3.

It was typical throughout the season for the Rams to not throw often – they were actually the league’s top rushing team with 1714 yards – but they passed very effectively. Waterfield threw 171 passes, averaged 9.4 yards per attempt and tied for the lead in touchdown throws with 14.

Benton ended up catching 45 passes for 1067 yards (a 23.7-yard average) and eight touchdowns. The reception total put him two behind the league leader, Hutson; the yards led the NFL and made him the second pass receiver to reach the thousand-yard threshold in a season. The mark is all the more remarkable in that Benton played in just nine games, missing a contest against the Bears earlier in the season due to injury, so his per game average was a gaudy 118.6.

While Benton’s outstanding season came in the last year of World War II manpower shortages, he proved it was no fluke in 1946 by leading the league both in pass receptions (63) and yards (981). At this point he was now playing for the Los Angeles Rams; in spite of winning the championship, the team had lost some $50,000 and owner Dan Reeves moved the franchise to the West Coast.