December 1, 2009

1940: Davey O’Brien Sets Passing Records in Career Finale at Washington

Quarterback Davey O’Brien of the Philadelphia Eagles proved to be one of the most prolific passers in pro football during his brief NFL career. Chosen by the Eagles in the first round of the 1939 draft out of Texas Christian, where he had won the Heisman Trophy, the diminutive (5’7”, 150 pounds) O’Brien received a $10,000 contract. Eagles Owner/Head Coach Bert Bell also took out a $1500 per game insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London and many sportswriters questioned whether he would hold up as a pro player.

Playing for a bad team (the Eagles went 2-19-1 in his two seasons), O’Brien proved to be both durable and a record-setting thrower. He twice set the league record for pass completions in a game in ’39, and finished with an NFL-record 1324 passing yards. With few other offensive weapons, and little protection from the line, the Eagles with O’Brien were the most prolific passing team in the league.

While his TCU teammate, end Don Looney, was brought in to provide him with a familiar target for the 1940 season, overall the situation was the same. Prior to the season finale, on December 1 at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, the player known as Slingshot Davey announced that he would retire to become an FBI agent.

The matchup was an appropriate one, because O’Brien’s predecessor as a passing tailback at TCU had been Sammy Baugh, the star passer for the Redskins. Prior to the game, Bell presented O’Brien with a plaque that read “Davey O’Brien, the greatest player of all time; retiring from pro football to serve his country. Small in stature with the heart of a lion. A living inspiration to the youth of America”.

The matchup against Baugh and the plaque inscription were a lot to live up to, but O’Brien certainly gave it his best shot. Passing on almost every down, he set single-game NFL records for pass attempts (60), completions (33), and yards (316). Looney was the primary recipient of his throws, also setting a new standard with 14 receptions (still the Eagles team record, since tied by RB Brian Westbrook in 2007). None of O’Brien’s passes were intercepted, establishing a record for most throws in a game without a pickoff that lasted until 1991.

Meanwhile, Washington scored on a 23-yard run by wingback Wilbur Moore in the second quarter (the extra point failed) and another run, by HB Dick Todd, of 6 yards in the third quarter to take a 13-0 lead. O’Brien led the Eagles on a 98-yard drive in the fourth quarter that culminated in a 19-yard TD pass to FB Frank Emmons that made the score 13-6 (the PAT attempt by Fran Murray was blocked). That ended up being the final tally; the Eagles drove from their own 31 yard line to the Redskins 22 as time ran out.

For the year, the Eagles finished at the bottom of the Eastern Division with a 1-10 record. Washington finished on top of the division at 9-2, although they were routed in the NFL Championship game, 73-0, by the Chicago Bears.

Davey O’Brien ranked second in the league (behind Baugh) with 1290 yards passing. Don Looney set a record with 58 pass receptions and also led the NFL with 707 yards.

O’Brien’s records from the game against the Redskins eventually were surpassed – some earlier (passing yards in 1942, pass completions in 1948) than others (pass attempts by George Blanda of the AFL in 1964). Don Looney’s pass receiving record was tied by Green Bay’s Don Hutson the very next year, 1941, and broken by Hutson in ’42; he played two more seasons and caught a total of just 17 more passes.