Pivotal Pro Football Moments
pivotal NFL postseason moment: A decision by a coach or an action by a player that changes the momentum of a playoff game.
1950: Graham Leads Last-Minute Drive to Beat Rams
1950 NFL Championship Game: Los Angeles Rams @ Cleveland Browns
The first year of the NFL-AAFC merger saw the Cleveland Browns, champions in all four years of the All-American Football Conference, win the Eastern Conference over the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles. The Los Angeles Rams, with new coach Joe Stydahar replacing the ousted Clark Shaugnessy, won the West to set up an offensive showdown at Cleveland Municipal Stadium for the league crown. Some said that a loss to the Rams would invalidate the Browns' four AAFC crowns.
Between intermittent snow flurries, a 28 mph wind blew in from Lake Erie and the temperature barely reached 30. Mounds of snow were piled up beyond the sidelines. The ground stayed frozen, forcing the Browns to wear rubber sneakers. However, only four Rams donned tennis shoes.
The Rams struck first. Offensive coach Hampton Pool had a special play ready to take advantage of Cleveland's "umbrella" defense that Coach Paul Brown had copied from the New York Giants. LA lined up in a standard T formation, then sent RHB Tommy Kalminir in motion to the right. LE Tom Fears sprinted toward the middle, forcing RCB Warren Lahr to move over to cover him. That left the RLB Alex Agase to cover any back out of the backfield. After pretending to block, LHB Glenn Davis rolled out of the backfield and sped past the linebacker. QB Bob Waterfield tossed the ball 30y downfield to Davis who galloped the remaining 52 for the touchdown. Waterfield toed the PAT after only 27 seconds of playing time. Rams 7 Browns 0
Cleveland coach Paul Brown was not happy. He prided himself on preparing for everything the opponents could throw at him. Now his defense had made costly mental mistakes on the very first play.
L-R: Glenn Davis, Bob Waterfield, Tom Fears
The Browns came right back thanks to the all-around artistry of QB Otto Graham. With the Rams keying on 235lb FB Marion Motley to stifle Cleveland's running and screen passing game, the Browns faced 3rd and five at their 47. Graham ran out of pocket to his left for a 22y gain to the 31. Back in the pocket after the next snap, Otto stepped to his right to avoid the rush and threw a beautiful pass to HB Dub Jones who caught the ball over his shoulder in the end zone two steps behind the defender and ran into the snowbank behind the end line. Rams 7 Browns 7
L: Rams swarm Marion Motley. R: Otto Graham runs. Note the tennis shoes.
Another key decision was made in the second quarter with the Rams ahead 14-13 (thanks to a bad snap on a PAT attempt). Cleveland's 6'4" 245lb DE Len Ford hadn't played for two months since suffering a fractured jaw and cheekbone when Chicago Cardinals FB Pat Harder slugged him in the face. Forced to take food through a straw for a good while, Len lost 15 pounds. Ford wasn't supposed to play but, with his team facing an uphill battle, he begged his coach to put him in. Given the OK, the future Hall of Famer donned his helmet with special padding and headed into the fray.
L-R: Dub Jones, Len Ford, Tommy Thompson, Elroy Hirsch
The teams traded touchdowns into the fourth quarter. The Browns trailed 28-27 as the clock moved under five minutes. They got a break when LB Tommy Thompson made a diving interception at the LA 47. Graham hit Jones with a 22y toss into field goal range, sending the fans into a frenzy. Determined to move closer on the cold, windy day, Otto bootlegged around left end to the 21 but fumbled when hit from behind by Milan Lazetich, who recovered the loose ball on the 24. You couldn't blame the Cleveland fans if they viewed the turnover as the nail in the coffin of their championship hopes.
Graham recalled, "I never saw the guy coming. I wanted to dig a hole right in the middle of that stadium, crawl into it, and bury myself forever. I figured that fumble cost us the game. I got to the sidelines and wanted to hide, but Paul came over, put his arm around my shoulder and said, 'Don't worry. We'll get it back. We're going to win.'"
The Rams took as much time as they could, running the ball three times before punting. Waterfield got the kick away, a magnificent boot 54y into the wind that Cliff Lewis returned 13y, running out of bounds at the 32 to stop the clock.
Only 1:48 remained as Graham led his offense onto the field. He was determined to make amends for his fumble but had to stay cool to avoid another mistake as he executed what would later become known as the "Two Minute Drill."
The Rams sent in their fleet All-Pro WR Elroy Hirsch to play in the deep secondary. "We knew that Graham had to throw the ball. But when a field is that slippery, all the advantage is with offense. The defensive linemen can't get a good rush, and the receivers, who know where they're going, can leave their defenders flat-footed."
Unable to find a receiver, Otto showed why he is rated as one of the best running quarterbacks in history. He weaved his way through the defenders for 16y, stepping out at the 48. Next, he threw to Rex Bumgardner in the left flat for 13 to the Rams 39 where Rex wisely ran out of bounds. Moving quickly as the fans shouted "Go, go!", Graham threw an incompletion, which at least stopped the clock. Then he shot a pass to Jones in the right flat for 16 to the 23 and followed that with another quickie to Bumgardner for a first down at the 11 with 0:45 on the clock. With the fans were pleading for Groza's field goal act, the Browns called timeout. Assistant coach Blanton Collier in the press box talked by phone to the Browns sideline and asked for the timeout to tell Graham to sneak the ball to the right to move the pigskin to the middle of the field for the field goal try into the open end of the stadium where the wind swirled. Brown agreed and told his quarterback the plan.
Collier recalled: "I lived one hundred years for the next few seconds because all of a sudden it dawned on me. 'You crazy nut! You have the ball down there now, and you want to take a chance on someone fumbling it on this frozen ground just to move it in a little better position.'"
40 years later, Graham laughed at Collier's fear. "Are you kidding? After losing that one fumble, there was no way. You couldn't have gotten that ball away from me with a blowtorch."
Otto took the snap, lowered his right shoulder with the ball clutched firmly to his chest, and sneaked diagonally to the right to the 10. As the last half minute ticked off, the Browns field goal team came out. A hush fell over the stadium as the teams lined up. Holder Tommy James knelt at the 16. Meanwhile, Groza was the coolest customer in the stadium. "The only thing I thought about was my own little checklist for kicking a ball. I didn't hear the crowd. I blotted out the distance, the time left, even the score. All I had to do was to kick the ball." Collier said Groza was a creature of routine. "He could kick fifty balls (in practice), and you'd only see one set of cleat marks."
Would the Browns botch the snap as they had on their second PAT try back in the second quarter? The pass from C Hal Herring was on the mark, James set it up, and "The Toe" booted it through. Browns 30 Rams 28
Lou Groza's winning kick
The fans stormed the field, but the game wasn't over. 20 seconds remained. After the field was cleared, Groza kicked off. Jerry Williams nearly gave Browns fans a heart attack as he took the ball on his 12 and raced 35y before Groza tackled him to save the day.
Needing what today would be called a "Hail Mary pass," Stydahar asked his long passer Van Brocklin, "Can you throw deep?" Norm replied, "Maybe one or two times." So in he went, broken rib and all, for the first time all day. The Dutchman took the snap and dropped back 7y to let his receivers go long before letting fly. The ball traveled 55y in the direction of Davis running down the sideline. But Lahr had West Point's "Mr. Outside" tightly covered and caught the ball over his shoulder at the 13 as if he were the intended receiver. Davis wrapped his arms around Warren and tried to wrestle the ball away from him as he pushed all the way into the end zone and out of bounds. Everyone stood motionless as the officials huddled to make the call. If Davis gained joint possession, the Rams could try a short field goal to win. Or would the officials rule it an interception and a safety, giving the visitors a tie to force overtime?
Graham waited on the sidelines with everyone else. "It was terrible. We didn't know what the referee was going to call. We were sure Lahr had intercepted. But what if they gave Davis the ball and a touchdown? And what if they called it a safety or something? That would have been two points and a tie game."
Finally, the referee signaled interception in the field of play. FINAL SCORE: Browns 30 Rams 28
The Browns had answered all detractors who said their success in the Mickey Mouse league wouldn't carry over to the NFL.