The Cleveland Browns had yet to fail to win a league championship in five years of existence and were looking to make it six straight as they faced the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL title on December 23, 1951. Head Coach Paul Brown’s team dominated the All-America Football Conference for four years before joining the NFL in 1950 and winning there as well. While FB Marion Motley was showing signs of wear, QB Otto Graham was still an outstanding and mobile passer and had productive targets in ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli. After losing to ex-AAFC rival San Francisco in the opening game, the Browns didn’t lose again, finishing atop the American Conference with an 11-1 record.
One of those wins was over Los Angeles, the same team that the Browns had faced for the NFL Championship the previous year. LA had the league’s most explosive offense, with the quarterback combination of Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin (pictured above), fullbacks “Deacon Dan” Towler and Dick Hoerner, and ends Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch contributing to a NFL-record 5506 total yards. The defense was less formidable, but benefited from the arrival of rookie DE Andy Robustelli, who joined a line that included All-Pro DE Larry Brink and MG Stan West. Head Coach Joe Stydahar’s team put together an 8-4 tally in winning the highly-competitive National Conference.
There were 57,522 fans in attendance at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. The Browns moved well on their opening possession, despite LA’s seven-man defensive front, but Lou Groza missed a 23-yard field goal attempt. Following a scoreless first quarter, the Rams put together a 55-yard drive in 12 plays that ended with Dick Hoerner plowing over for the last yard and a touchdown. Bob Waterfield added the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
The Browns got on the board when Groza made up for the short miss with a 52-yard field goal, setting a new NFL Championship game record as he broke the previous mark by a full ten yards. Before the half was over, Cleveland drove to another score as Otto Graham completed three straight passes, to Mac Speedie for 14 yards, Marion Motley down the middle for 23, and the last to HB Dub Jones for a 17-yard TD. Groza kicked the point after and the defending champs took a 10-7 lead into halftime.
Graham faced heavy pressure from Larry Brink and Andy Robustelli throughout the contest, and in the third quarter the two combined on a big defensive play for the Rams. With the ball at the Cleveland 35, Brink hit Graham hard and forced a fumble. Robustelli recovered and ran to the one. From there, Dan Towler hit the line twice without success before finally breaking through for a touchdown. Waterfield’s conversion put the home team ahead by 14-10.
In the fourth quarter, the Rams drove to the Cleveland one but came up empty when they had to give the ball up on downs. They again drove inside the ten, but while the tough Browns defense again held, the Rams didn’t fail to score this time as Waterfield kicked a 17-yard field goal to increase LA’s lead to 17-10. The Browns fought back, advancing 70 yards in 10 plays as Graham had a 34-yard run and HB Ken Carpenter scored a two-yard TD. Groza converted to tie the score at 17-17.
At this point Norm Van Brocklin relieved Waterfield at quarterback and he promptly threw deep for end Tom Fears, who gathered the ball in between two defenders and sprinted to the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown. It was the biggest play of the game, and Waterfield again added the PAT to put the Rams back in front by seven points.
Cleveland responded by advancing into Los Angeles territory, but facing fourth-and-two at the 42, Jones caught a short pass from Graham and was hit hard by hard-charging safety Norb Hecker for a two-yard loss, forcing the Browns to give up the ball. Late in the game, the Rams had a chance to add to their lead, but Waterfield missed on a field goal attempt. It had no effect as Los Angeles held on to win by a final score of 24-17.
The statistics bore out the closely-fought nature of the game. The Rams had the edge in total yards (334 to 325) while Cleveland accumulated more first downs (22 to 20). The Browns turned the ball over four times, to three turnovers suffered by LA, and the Rams, reflecting the outstanding play of their defensive ends, recorded all five of the game’s sacks.
Bob Waterfield completed 9 of 24 passes for 125 yards, giving up two interceptions, while Norm Van Brocklin was four-of-six for 128 yards with the long touchdown. Tom Fears (pictured at left) had four catches for 146 yards and a TD and “Crazylegs” Hirsch contributed four receptions for 66 yards. Dan Towler topped LA’s rushers with 36 yards on 16 carries that included a touchdown.
For the Browns, Otto Graham was successful on 19 of 40 throws for 280 yards and a TD, but gave up three interceptions. He also ran for a team-leading 43 yards on five attempts. Mac Speedie caught 7 passes for 81 yards and Dante Lavelli added four receptions for 65 yards. Dub Jones, in addition to a modest rushing total of 12 yards on 9 carries, had four catches for 62 yards that included a score.
Of the long game-winning touchdown pass, Tom Fears said that it was “the best thrown pass I’ve ever caught. He laid it right in there full stride.”
The Rams tied for first with Detroit in 1952, lost a playoff to determine the National Conference champion, and next appeared in the postseason in 1955. While often fielding contending teams over the years, the NFL Championship in 1951 was the only one the franchise achieved while based in Los Angeles (they won a NFC title in 1979, but lost the ensuing Super Bowl. Other NFL titles were while the team was in Cleveland in 1945 and St. Louis in 1999). The loss for the Browns, while putting a chink in the armor of their title-game invincibility, did not signal a decline. Cleveland continued to top its conference in each of the next four seasons, losing the next two Championship games before winning again in 1954 and ’55.