Pivotal Pro Football Moments
pivotal NFL postseason moment: A decision by a coach or an action by a player that establishes, continues or changes the momentum of a playoff game.
1945: Who Put That Goalpost There?
NFL Championship Game: Washington Redskins @ Cleveland Rams
The Cleveland Rams came out of nowhere to win the Western Division of the National Foot­ball League in the first season of play after World War II. Only two years removed from sitting out the 1943 campaign, the Rams jumped from 4-6 in '44 to 9-1 in '45.
When coach Aldo Donelli enlisted in the military after the '44 season, General Manager Chile Walsh appointed his brother Adam as the new coach. An All-American center on Knute Rockne's Four Horsemen team (1922-24), Adam amassed an uninspiring 80-85-11 record as a college coach before answering his brother's summons.
But GM Walsh's best move had occurred a year earlier when he drafted QB Bob Waterfield of UCLA in the fifth round while Bob served in the army. When a knee injury led to his dis­charge, Waterfield played for UCLA in 1944 before joining the Rams in '45.
Washington coach Dudley DeGroot installed the T-formation when he took over the year before. Since no one had played the T in college, the team had trouble adapting. But by 1945, QB Sammy Baugh and his mates had the system down pat. Slingin' Sam, who didn't take as much of a beating in the T because he didn't have to run, led the league in completion % (70.3), was second in passing yards (1669), and had the lowest interception rate (2.2%). (He estimated that the switch to the T lengthened his career 7-8 years.)
The game could be termed a shootout between Baugh, the old pro, and Waterfield, the hotshot rookie.
Cleveland Municipal Stadium
Cleveland Municipal Stadium, unaffectionately known as "The Mistake by the Lake"
Brutal Weather in Cleveland
The forecast for Sunday called for "cloudy, windy, cold and light snow" with the temperature "below 15°." However, the thermometer dropped to 3° at midnight Saturday with every pros­pect of falling even further by dawn.
Cleveland's 82,000-seat Municipal Stadium, on the shore of Lake Erie, would receive the brunt of any Arctic blasts. Tiny islands of ice were visible floating in the lake.
Stadium Groundskeeper Emil Bossard directed his crew to cover the playing field with 9,000 bales of hay to create a 4' blanket of insulation, then pull the tarpaulin over it.
An hour before kickoff, the thermometer read -2° as the players warmed up – or tried to. The mercury rose a few degrees above zero by kickoff but never got higher than 6° all after­noon. A "wild and wooly" wind made the cold worse.
Despite Bossard's best efforts, patches of ice covered the field, especially in the part of the field that served as the infield during baseball season. Baugh recalled: "It was like trying to play on a paved surface. Like we were out in the street." Others likened the playing surface to a hockey rink.
During warmups, Baugh's passes had no zip because he couldn't grip the ball well and his ribs ached. When DeGroot suggested that backup Frank Filchock start in his place, Sam said he wanted to try. "Maybe it'll warm up, and I'll feel better."
Redskins Agree to Wear Cleats
The Redskins brought sneakers to give them better traction on the frozen field. However, the Rams had only cleats. Cleveland coach Adam Walsh appealed to DeGroot, Washing­ton's head man, and heagreed that his squad would play in the traditional football shoes. He refused to reconsider the decision even after his players found the footing treacherous during pregame warmups. That would turn out to be the decision that swayed the outcome of the game against his team.
32,178 hardy souls showed up in all sorts of cold weather gear: blankets, parkas, earmuffs, stadium boots, flying suits, ski troop uniforms.
Rams huddling on sidelines.
Rams huddle on their sideline behind bales of hay.
Scoring Begins with Safety
The Redskins received the kickoff but couldn't gain a first down. So the Rams began their first possession on their 21.
HB Fred Gehrke sped 16y on a crossbuck. Then Waterfield, who never endured anything close to these conditions at UCLA, started attacking rookie DB Robert DeFruiter, hitting E Jim Benton twice, the second time for 30y to the 14, where DeFruiter pulled him down. The Redskins tried to counter by having veteran Dick Todd, a former top running back who was converted to safety, lend a hand. But the Redskins stiffened, no great feat in the icy weather. Gehrke, trying to run wide right, was nailed by E Wayne Millner for a 6y loss. Don Greenwood hit the center for 6y before a flat pass from Waterfield to Benton put the ball on the eight. On fourth down, Gillette drove into tackle but just missed the first down at the five.
Baugh dropped back to the end of the end zone in what appeared to be punt formation. But Sammy planned to pass. However, he dropped the snap, picked it up, and heaved it toward the sideline to avoid a safety, earning an intentional grounding penalty that moved the ball to the 2 1/2. On second down, he called for a quick crossing pattern to either Millner or HB Steve Bagarus. So Baugh took the snap in the same formation, bent down as if to punt, then threw the ball on a high arc toward the left sideline in the direction of Mill­ner, who recalled: "Everyone expected Sam to punt because we were backed up to the goal line. There was no one within a mile of me when I broke into the clear. But as Baugh threw the ball, the wind shifted and blew the ball into the goalpost." The players assumed the pass was incomplete, including Baugh, who fell on the ball just in case. But the officials invoked a little-known rule that said that a pass thrown from the end zone that hits the goal post results in a safety. So Cleveland led 2-0 after 9:20 of play.
"I had a damn touchdown," Baugh recalled. "Wayne was clear out there, but I couldn't get as much on the ball as I usually did. ... 'Damn!' I said as soon as the ball hit the post. I was upset about not completing the pass. I had no idea about a safety until the referee made the signal, but even then I still was more damn mad at missing a touchdown than at Cleveland getting two points."
1945 NFL Championship Game Action
L: Baugh takes fateful snap in end zone. R: Gillette runs on his way to 101y on the day.
Filchock Replaces Baugh
Early in the second quarter, Waterfield booted a bulls-eye corner kick out of bounds on the four. Since Baugh was obviously not at his best, Frank Filchock took over under center with Merle Condit handling the punting. With the Ram line bottling up the Skins' infantry attack (just 35y on 34 attempts for the game), the six-year veteran's right arm would have to move the ball. Baugh would see little action the rest of the day and finish with only one completion for 1y in six attempts.
The Redskins missed Baugh on defense as much as offense. He was an excellent safety, a sure tackler and a defensive quarterback who could read the opposition's offense as though he were operating it.
Washington Ties Score
The tide turned later when LB Ki Aldrich intercepted a Waterfield throw intended for Steve Pritko and returned to the Redskins 48. Filchock's pass fell incomplete, but Cleve­land was penalized 15y for roughing to the 38. On the next play, Frank threw down the right sideline to Bagarus, who shook off Waterfield at the 12 and pranced into the end zone. When Aguirre booted the PAT, Washington led 7-2 with 5:31 left in the half.
Rams Regain Lead
In the 12th minute, the Rams regained the lead, marching 70y in six plays. A flat pass to Gillette gained only a yard. Jim then ripped off 19 over tackle to the Washington 46. On the next play, a mix-up in the backfield left Waterfield uncovered, and he was thrown back to the Ram 49. But Bob came back with a 14y pass to Benton near the sideline in front of new DB Les Dye to the 37. Then Benton ran a post pattern from left end and grabbed a Waterfield pass 3y behind Dye and raced to the end zone to complete a 37y play.
Waterfield recalled marveling at his receivers' performance. "It was so cold I remember thinking at the time, 'How do these guys hold the ball?' I didn't have any trouble with the ball, but then I didn't have to catch it."
The Rams' second weird break came on the PAT attempt. Several Redskins broke through, and T John Koniszewski got a hand on Waterfield's kick. But the ball was deflected just high enough to strike the crossbar and bounce over it to make it 9-7 Rams. In the broadcast booth, Wismer, who had already explained the odd safety to his audi­ence, said: "It's certainly a strange day. I can't remember ever seeing that one, either." "That extra point would make all the difference in the outcome," Shirley Povich wrote in the Washington Post: "To this point, the goal posts have been the twelfth man in the Rams' line-up." Rams 9 Redskins 7
1945 NFL Championship Game Action
L: Gillette scores as Dick Todd (41) and Reid Lennan (51) chase in vain.
R: Don Greenwood runs in his makeshift facemask.
Rams Lengthen Their Lead
The Rams took the second half kickoff and marched 81y to their second touchdown. Three runs and a completion moved the ball to their 40. After an incompletion, Gillette broke loose for 14y. Two more runs put the ball on the 39, but an offside penalty set the Rams back to the 44. On the next play, Gillette darted down the center of the field past Al­drich and caught Waterfield's beautiful pass over his shoulder in stride at the nine just beyond two defenders. One dove and got a hand on Jim but didn't prevent him from scoring. Bob's PAT kick sailed wide to leave it 15-7 Rams.
Redskins Cut Lead to One
With time winding down in the third period, the Redskins started moving. HB Robert De­Fruiter dashed 15y to the 43. Filchock took the next snap, faded back, and, just before the rush got to him, looped a pass down the middle to Bagarus who jumped and grabbed it at the Ram 45. The Fighting Irishman eluded a grasping tackle and ran free until Gehrke roared up and, fighting off a stiff arm, pulled Steve down from behind at the six.
T Gil Bouley threw Filchock for an 11y loss. Two plunges made it 4th-and-goal at the nine. Veteran HB Bob Seymour loped in as a substitute, and the Rams apparently didn't see him. So Filchock took the snap, stepped back looking down the middle, then turned left and spot­ted Seymour running all alone. Bob took the pass in the end zone with no Ram within shout­ing distance. Aguirre's conversion made it 15-14 Rams. The scoring had ended but not the excitement.
Redskins Miss Field Goals
Filchock and Dye teamed up on a 44y pass play to the Ram 31 midway through the period. Three rushes gained 7y, and Aguirre, whose ironic nickname was "Hot Toe," came on to try a go-ahead field goal. On a frozen field with a frozen ball, kicking was more challenging than passing and catching. The wind that had gusted so strongly stopped as he lined up for the kick. But as soon as his toe struck the ball, the wind whipped up, pushing the ball just wide of the uprights.
1945 NFL Championship Game Action - 2
Aguirre launches one of two missed field goals in fourth quarter.
A little while later, Aguirre got another chance from 10y further out. That try didn't come close.
In the final minute, Filchock chucked the ball from deep in his territory, but Albie Reisz intercepted and ran it back 16y to the Washington 29. Waterfield didn't risk a handoff, pushing into the line himself until the clock ran out.
Before the 1946 season, the NFL revised the rule that gave the Rams a safety. In the future, any pass hitting the goalpost from in front or behind would be incomplete.
Despite winning the championship, Rams owner Dan Reeves still lost money for the '45 season. So he asked the league for permission to move his team to Los Angeles and its 92,000 seat Memorial Coliseum. When the owners voted against him, he threatened to get out of pro football altogether. A settlement was reached that allowed him to take his team to the West Coast for the 1946 season. This remains the only time an NFL champion played its next season in another city.