December 24, 2011

1950: Browns Edge Rams for NFL Championship

It was a momentous occasion on December 24, 1950 as the Cleveland Browns hosted the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL Championship. The Browns were in their first season in the National Football League, having dominated the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in all four years of its existence. They were one of three AAFC teams to join the older league, along with the 49ers and Colts, and many of the staid leaders of the NFL had anticipated that the upstart Browns would be put in their place.

Head Coach Paul Brown’s team had thrashed the Philadelphia Eagles, league champions in 1948 and ’49, in the opening game of the season and finished up with a 10-2 record. That still left them tied atop the American Conference with the New York Giants – the one team that had managed to beat them, and twice at that. Cleveland managed to get past the Giants in the playoff, however, in a tight 8-3 contest and now was poised to vie for yet another title in their new league. The innovative passing offense was directed by QB Otto Graham (pictured above), throwing to ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli. FB Marion Motley was the league’s top rusher and Lou Groza the most proficient placekicker (as well as an outstanding tackle).

The team representing the National Conference was the Los Angeles Rams, who had gone 9-3 and also had to win a tiebreaking playoff against the Bears to advance. The Rams, coached by Joe Stydahar, were the league’s highest-scoring team with a record-setting total of 466 points and 64 touchdowns and were especially noted for their passing attack that was paced by the quarterback tandem of Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin. End Tom Fears led a talented group of receivers that included end Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch and HB Glenn Davis as he set a single-season record with 84 catches. Although Van Brocklin had suffered broken ribs in the playoff game against Chicago (a fact that they kept hidden), LA was explosive and a worthy test for the Browns.

The turf at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was frozen on a 25-degree day with a heavy wind blowing off of Lake Erie, thus causing many of the players to wear sneakers for better traction, and attendance was only 29,751. The Rams started off fast on the first play from scrimmage as Davis, at first faking as though he would block, went deep and Waterfield connected with him for an 82-yard touchdown. It was a shock to the Browns and their fans as LA held a 7-0 lead after just 27 seconds. The Browns came right back, however, going 70 yards in six plays. Graham ran for 21 of those yards and threw to HB Dub Jones for 31 yards and a touchdown. With Lou Groza’s extra point, it was all tied up at 7-7 at three minutes into the contest.

The offensive show kept going with the Rams now driving 80 yards in eight plays. Waterfield threw to Fears for a 44-yard gain and fleet HB Verda “Vitamin T” Smith took off for a 15-yard carry to the Cleveland four. FB Dick Hoerner pounded the last three yards for a TD that put Los Angeles back in front at 14-7. There had been three touchdowns in the first 15 plays from scrimmage as both clubs fired off their offensive arsenals.

Cleveland again fought back on a drive that continued into the second quarter. The kickoff following LA’s score was returned to the Browns’ 35 yard line and a pass interference call on DHB Woodley Lewis, combined with a completion to Speedie, set up a 37-yard TD pass from Graham to Lavelli (Lavelli pictured below). However, the snap on the extra point attempt was high, possibly caught by a gust of wind, and holder Tommy James was unable to spot it for Groza to kick. His pass into the end zone fell incomplete and the Rams remained in front by 14-13.

LA again drove deep into Cleveland territory, but after reaching the seven yard line they were moved back by a penalty and Waterfield was intercepted by safety Ken Gorgal to end the threat. The Browns were unable to penetrate midfield and the Rams regained possession with good field position. Again they moved the ball well and reached inside the Cleveland 10, but the Browns defense stiffened and Waterfield missed on a 15-yard field goal attempt. The Rams led by the one-point margin at halftime.

The Browns went in front early in the third quarter, capping a 77-yard drive with another Graham-to-Lavelli touchdown pass, this one covering 39 yards. The extra point was successful this time and Cleveland was ahead by 20-14. However, the Rams scored two TDs in a matter of 21 seconds to seemingly take control of the game.

First, LA drove 71 yards and, following a Waterfield pass to Smith that covered 38 yards, relied on their power-running game as Hoerner carried the ball seven straight times, starting from the Cleveland 17 and ending with a one-yard scoring blast on fourth down. On the next play from scrimmage by the Browns, Motley fumbled and DE Larry Brink picked up the ball and ran six yards for a touchdown. It was 28-20 heading into the fourth quarter – and the failed extra point attempt seemed especially significant.

Cleveland’s comeback began with a big defensive play as DB Warren Lahr picked off a Waterfield pass five minutes into the final period. The Browns converted two fourth downs, with Graham passing for seven yards on fourth-and-four and running for a first down on fourth-and-three until, on the eighth play of the series, HB Rex Bumgardner made a diving catch that landed him just inside the end zone for a 14-yard TD. With another successful PAT, it was now a one-point game at 28-27.

Following a short possession by the Rams, Cleveland had the ball once more with three minutes left on the clock. It seemed as though the Browns would score again as they advanced inside the LA 30. But as Graham took off out of the pocket, he was blindsided by LB Milan Lazetich and fumbled. Lazetich recovered and it appeared that Los Angeles would prevail – if they could run out the clock.

Hoerner was twice stopped for no gain and then Davis ran for six yards off tackle, forcing the Rams to punt. Waterfield launched a 51-yard kick that DB Cliff Lewis returned to the Cleveland 32. Graham and the offense returned to the field with about 1:50 to work with. Forced out of the pocket on the first play, Graham ran 14 yards for another first down. Throwing sideline passes, he hit Bumgardner for 15 yards and Jones for 16 to the LA 23. Another throw to Bumgardner put the ball at the 11 yard line – easy field goal range for Groza.

Graham called time out and, with the ball on the left hashmark, the quarterback carried for a yard toward the center of the field to better line up the three-point attempt. Groza’s kick was perfect from 16 yards, and for only the second time in the game Cleveland was ahead.

There were still 20 seconds left as the Browns kicked off one last time. HB Jerry Williams returned it to the LA 47. With time for one last desperation play, Coach Stydahar sent Van Brocklin out on the field, with his stronger throwing arm. The second-year quarterback threw the ball as far as he could, but Lahr intercepted at the Cleveland five yard line. The Browns, four-time champions of the AAFC, were now NFL champs by a score of 30-28.

While both teams generated 22 first downs apiece, the Rams outgained Cleveland by 407 yards to 373. However, LA also turned the ball over five times (all on interceptions), to four by the Browns (three fumbles and an interception).

Otto Graham completed 22 of 33 passes for 298 yards with four touchdowns and an interception and also ran for 99 yards on 12 carries. Dante Lavelli caught 11 passes for 128 yards and two TDs. Marion Motley was held to just nine yards on six attempts, however – in fact, aside from Graham, the Browns gained a mere 15 yards on 13 rushing attempts. Halfbacks like Dub Jones (4 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD) and Rex Bumgardner (4 catches, 46 yards, 1 TD) were more effective as receivers out of the backfield.

For the Rams, Bob Waterfield went to the air 31 times and completed 18 for 312 yards but with four picked off as opposed to one for a touchdown. Tom Fears had 9 receptions for 136 yards while the ex-Heisman Trophy winner from Army, Glenn Davis, gained 82 yards on just two catches thanks to the long scoring reception to start the game. Dick Hoerner (pictured below) ran for 86 yards on 24 carries that included two scores.

Both Paul Brown and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell pronounced that it was the greatest game they had ever seen, and indeed it was an intensely played contest between two outstanding clubs that featured the passing game – in particular, the precision aerial attack of the Browns based on short throws to the sidelines.

The Browns appeared in the next five title games, although their winning streak in such contests ended in 1951 when they lost a rematch with the Rams.