December 26, 2012

1955: Browns Defeat Rams for NFL Title in Otto Graham’s Final Game

The NFL Championship game on December 26, 1955 featured the defending-champion Cleveland Browns against the Los Angeles Rams. The Browns were a perennial powerhouse under Head Coach Paul Brown, having won all four titles in the All-America Football Conference and then appearing in five straight NFL Championship contests after joining the NFL in 1950, winning two. The quarterback throughout the remarkable run was Otto Graham (pictured at right), who had announced his retirement following the previous year’s title win but agreed to come back when the club was foundering in the preseason. Cleveland went 9-2-1 to again top the Eastern Conference.

The Rams, under first-year Head Coach Sid Gillman, finished a half-game in front of the Bears in the Western Conference at 8-3-1. They were largely a veteran club best known for offensive prowess. QB Norm Van Brocklin was a formidable passer and still had savvy veteran ends Tom Fears and Crazylegs Hirsch as targets. Rookie HB Ron Waller joined with veteran FB Tank Younger to pace the ground attack and the defense was anchored by All-Pros in DE Andy Robustelli and HB Will Sherman.

There were 87,695 fans under a gray sky at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Browns missed out on a first quarter touchdown when DHB Ed Hughes wrestled a pass away from HB Ray Renfro for an interception. Both clubs parried until Cleveland, capitalizing on an interception by safety Ken Konz, finally got on the board with two minutes remaining in the opening period on a 26-yard field goal by Lou Groza.

The Browns got another big defensive play in the second quarter when DHB Don Paul (pictured at left) returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown, with only the slow-footed Van Brocklin between him and the goal line. However, on LA’s next possession HB Skeet Quinlan scored on a spectacular long pass after beating DHB Warren Lahr. The play brought the home crowd alive and, at least briefly, kept the contest competitive with the Browns leading by 10-7. But just before the half the Browns scored again when Graham connected with end Dante Lavelli for a 50-yard TD. It was 17-7 at the midway point and Cleveland would not look back.

In the third quarter, Konz returned a punt 24 yards to set up a five-play, 46-yard drive that ended with Graham rolling out around end and running 15 yards for a touchdown. Shortly thereafter, LB Sam Palumbo intercepted a Van Brocklin pass to give the Browns the ball in LA territory and they drove 36 yards to a one-yard scoring carry by Graham. Cleveland had a commanding 31-7 lead.

Early in the fourth quarter, Renfro caught a pass from Graham for a 35-yard touchdown to cap the scoring for the Browns. Thoroughly overwhelmed, the Rams finally scored again with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter on a four-yard run by Ron Waller, long after the contest had been decided. With a little time remaining, George Ratterman came in at quarterback for Cleveland and Graham received a standing ovation from what was left of the crowd as he trotted off the field. The Browns were once again NFL Champions by a score of 38-14.

While both teams had 17 first downs apiece, the Browns had the edge in total yards (371 to 259). More significantly, LA turned the ball over seven times (all by interceptions), to three by Cleveland. And while the Rams were unable to capitalize on their takeaways, the Browns generated 24 points from theirs, including the one long interception return for a score.

Otto Graham completed 14 of 25 passes for 209 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, and also ran the ball 9 times for 21 yards and two TDs. FB Ed Modzelewski (pictured at right) led the Browns with 61 yards on 13 carries as well as 5 pass receptions for 34 yards. Dante Lavelli gained 95 yards on his three catches that included a touchdown.

For the Rams, Norm Van Brocklin was successful on 11 of 25 throws for 166 yards and a TD but also was intercepted six times (Bill Wade relieved him and tossed another interception). Skeet Quinlan caught 5 passes for 116 yards and the one long touchdown. FB Dan Towler led the club in rushing with 64 yards on 14 carries and Ron Waller contributed 48 yards and a TD on 11 attempts.

It was a near-perfect sendoff for Otto Graham, who made clear that he was retiring for good this time. He left having piloted the Browns to ten straight title games – four in the AAFC and six in the NFL – with seven wins in that string. While his career passing totals pale in comparison to those accumulated in modern offenses, his pro statistics include 23,584 passing yards and 174 touchdowns against 135 interceptions. Of that, 13,499 yards, 88 TDs, and 81 interceptions came in the NFL. He led the NFL in completion percentage in each of his last three seasons and twice led in passing yards. Graham’s career average yards-per-attempt of 8.6 is still the best in NFL history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.

Graham’s value to the Browns was further underlined in 1956 when, without him in the lineup, they suffered the first losing season in franchise history (5-7). They bounced back to top the Eastern Conference in ’57.

As for the Rams, they dropped all the way to the bottom of the Western Conference with a 4-8 record in 1956 and did not return to the postseason until 1967. Norm Van Brocklin’s poor performance in the ’55 title game became one of the points of contention between the talented but irascible quarterback and Coach Gillman, ultimately leading to his departure from the team following the ’57 season.