December 18, 2012

1949: Eagles Defeat Rams in Quagmire for NFL Championship

The Philadelphia Eagles had won the 1948 NFL title in a game played amidst blizzard conditions. On December 18, 1949 they were once again playing for the league championship while facing extreme weather. The Eagles, under Head Coach Earle “Greasy” Neale, were an even better club than in ’48. They repeated as Eastern Division champs with an 11-1 record, leading the NFL both in points scored (364) and fewest points surrendered (134). The key to the offense was star HB Steve Van Buren (pictured above), who won his fourth league rushing title in five years with a record 1146 yards. QB Tommy Thompson was a fine passer and had an able receiving corps in ends Pete Pihos, Jack Ferrante, and Neill Armstrong.  Neale’s innovative 5-2-4 defense was highly effective.

The winners of the Western Division were the Los Angeles Rams, who went 8-2-2. Head Coach Clark Shaughnessy was one of the architects of the T-formation and fashioned a high-scoring offense. Veteran QB Bob Waterfield was joined by rookie Norm Van Brocklin and HB Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch was moved out to flanker where he joined ends Tom Fears and Bob Shaw to create an exciting and productive passing attack. However, after winning their first six games they lost badly at Philadelphia and struggled through the remainder of the schedule.

Heavy rains struck Los Angeles the previous day and continued through the Sunday of the title game, dumping some three inches of rain on Los Angeles and making the field at the Memorial Coliseum a sea of mud. A record crowd was expected to attend the contest in the cavernous stadium, but the heavy downpour limited attendance to a disappointing 22,245 – a particular disappointment to the players, who were looking forward to a large gate with healthy shares going to the winning team.  Thus, there were players, and for that matter fans, who wanted to see the game postponed a week, but it went on as scheduled.

With conditions that essentially grounded the offenses, neither team scored in the opening period. In the second quarter, the Eagles put together a 63-yard drive. Tommy Thompson completed passes to Jack Ferrante that gained 11 and 16 yards, respectively, and then hit Pete Pihos from 31 yards out, who made a leaping grab at the 15 and proceeded unmolested into the end zone. Cliff Patton’s extra point attempt was successful and the defending champs held a 7-0 lead at the half.

Philadelphia added to its lead in the third quarter. With the Rams backed up to their 10 yard line, a punt by Bob Waterfield was blocked by DE Leo Skladany who then managed to gain possession of the ball that had rolled back to the two and cross the goal line for another TD. It was a career highlight for Skladany, a rookie who was playing semipro football until signed by the Eagles during the season when star DE Johnny Green went down with an injury. Once again Patton added the PAT.

The Rams only threatened twice, reaching the Philadelphia 25 and 37 yard lines, but came up empty. A field goal try by Waterfield from 45 yards sailed wide. Likewise, the Eagles had an opportunity to add to their margin but HB Jim Parmer fumbled the ball away at the LA 7. The key to the game was Philadelphia’s ability to run the ball effectively and thus control time of possession as well as being able to shut the Rams down defensively. The Eagles won their second consecutive title by a score of 14-0.

Philadelphia’s domination was complete. The Eagles ran far more plays (70 to 51), gained more total yards (342 to 109), and had more first downs (17 to 7). The Rams didn’t make a first down on a running play and set a team record for lowest rushing yardage in a title game (21 yards on 24 carries). Philadelphia, on the other hand, did the opposite (274 yards on 61 attempts).

Steve Van Buren was the game’s dominant player, gaining a postseason-record 196 yards on 31 carries (it remained the NFL standard until 1975). Tommy Thompson threw just 9 passes and completed 5 for 68 yards and a touchdown along with two interceptions. Jack Ferrante was the only Eagle to catch more than one pass, with two for 27 yards, although Pete Pihos was the receiving yardage leader with 31 on his lone reception for a TD.

For the Rams, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin combined for 10 completions in 27 attempts for 98 yards and one interception. Four receivers caught two passes apiece, with tackle Dick Huffman the leader in yards with 26. The anemic ground game was led by HB Fred Gehrke who gained 13 yards on three attempts – FB Dick Hoerner had 7 carries, for just 10 yards.

“My boys did their best,” summed up Clark Shaughnessy. “I can’t think of a single change I would make if the game were played again.”

The win over the Rams made the Eagles the first back-to-back NFL Champions since the 1940-41 Bears and crowned a run in which they topped the Eastern Division for three straight years. They dropped to 6-6 and third place in the revamped American Conference in 1950 primarily as the result of injuries (particularly to Van Buren) – and the arrival of the Cleveland Browns from the AAFC. Philadelphia would not win another title until 1960. The Rams, on the other hand, made it back to the Championship game in each of the next two seasons, winning in 1951 and tying for first place in the National Conference in ’52.