September 28, 2011

1947: Eagles Outlast Redskins in Record-Setting Opening Game

The NFL opening-week matchup on September 28, 1947 between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins featured two clubs heading in different directions. The visiting Redskins had regularly contended in the Eastern Division between 1936 and ’45, making it to the postseason six times and winning two NFL titles. However, under Head Coach Turk Edwards, a former star tackle, the team had gone 5-5-1 in 1946, the first non-winning record since 1935. Still, the Redskins had a formidable weapon in 33-year-old QB Sammy Baugh, the best passer in the league, assuring that they could put points on the board.

The host Eagles, on the other hand, had been perennial losers since coming into the NFL in 1933 (a year after the Redskins). They didn’t have a winning record until 1943, the year they combined with the Pittsburgh Steelers due to the wartime manpower shortage and restrictions on travel, but under Head Coach Earle “Greasy” Neale, the Eagles had been adding outstanding talent and improving steadily. Philadelphia finished second in the Eastern Division in each of the next three seasons, including a 6-5 record in 1946.

There were 35,406 fans at Municipal Stadium, and they saw the home team score first when Joe Muha kicked a 40-yard field goal three minutes into the contest. Later in the opening period, Eagles QB “One-Eyed” Tommy Thompson (pictured above) connected with rookie end Pete Pihos, a former college fullback, for a 19-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 10-0.

The Redskins got on the board early in the second quarter as Baugh (pictured at left) connected with HB Bob Nussbaumer on a 37-yard touchdown pass. Shortly thereafter, Baugh’s 1000th career completion was good for a 62-yard TD to rookie end Hugh Taylor and Washington was in front at 14-10.

However, the lead didn’t last long when Eagles star HB Steve Van Buren returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. With time winding down in the first half, backup QB Allie Sherman scored on a one-yard sneak that was set up by Van Buren’s running and passes from Thompson to Pihos. Philadelphia held a 24-14 lead at halftime.

The Redskins started the second half off with a bang as HB Eddie Saenz returned the kickoff for a 94-yard touchdown. The Eagles came right back with a 70-yard drive. Thompson threw to end Jack Ferrante for a 33-yard gain to the Washington six yard line and shortly thereafter Van Buren ran in for a one-yard TD. Philadelphia’s lead was again ten points at 31-21.

Thompson connected with Pihos for a 21-yard touchdown a few minutes later to extend the margin, but Baugh threw a pass to HB Dick Poillon that resulted in a 57-yard TD and the score was 38-28 after three quarters.

Thompson threw to end Neill Armstrong, another rookie, for Philadelphia’s last touchdown on a play that covered 29 yards. Washington didn’t give up, and Baugh tossed two scoring passes to Taylor in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t quite enough as the Eagles held on to win by a score of 45-42.

The combined 87 points set a new NFL record, as did the 12 combined touchdowns (previously 79 points & 11 TDs by the Packers and Cardinals in 1942; both records fell a year later).

Pete Pihos (pictured at right) had an impressive debut as he caught 5 passes for 89 yards and two TDs. Steve Van Buren ran for 98 yards and added the kickoff return for a touchdown.

Oddly enough, the field goal by Joe Muha that proved to be crucial to the result was the only successful three-point attempt of his career (he was one-for-five in ’47, one-for-16 over his five years in the NFL). A fullback, Muha was far more effective as a punter (he led the league with a 47.3 average in 1948).

For the Redskins, Sammy Baugh completed 21 of 34 passes for 364 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions. Hugh Taylor (pictured below) also had a noteworthy first game as he caught 8 passes for 212 yards and three TDs.

The Eagles went on to post an 8-4 record, tying for first with Pittsburgh atop the Eastern Division. They won the resulting playoff but lost the NFL Championship game to the Chicago Cardinals. Washington won its next two games but then lost five straight to fall out of contention. The Redskins ended up at 4-8 and in fourth place.

Tommy Thompson, who had limited vision in one eye, firmly established himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the league as he threw for 1680 yards and 16 touchdowns. He benefited from having Steve Van Buren in the backfield, who set a NFL single-season rushing record (1008 yards) and also led the league in touchdowns (14) and yards from scrimmage (1087). Pete Pihos set the tone for his Hall of Fame career by catching 23 passes for 382 yards and seven TDs.

Although the Redskins were mired in mediocrity, Sammy Baugh led the league in pass attempts (354), completions (210), yards (2938), TD passes (25), completion percentage (59.3), and had the lowest percentage of interceptions (4.2). Hugh Taylor, who had such a spectacular debut in a losing cause against the Eagles, caught 26 passes for 511 yards (19.7 avg.) and six touchdowns. Bob Nussbaumer ranked second in the NFL in pass receptions (47) and ninth in receiving yards (597).