On Christmas Eve 1950, in a wind chill that brought the temperature close to zero, one of the greatest football games in NFL history was played between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns. The nearly forgotten championship featured two groundbreaking infractions, 12 future Hall of Fame players, one of the greatest coaches in league history… and plenty of pre-game storylines.
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Would the Browns, who had won rival All-American Football Conference’s last four championships, win the title in their first season in the NFL? In December 1949, the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts were absorbed into the NFL after the closure of the AAFC.
Could the Rams, who put on one of the biggest attacks in NFL history, win the championship in the city they once called home? After starting as the Cleveland Rams in 1937, the franchise moved to Los Angeles shortly after winning the NFL title in 1945. The Rams remain the only NFL team to relocate after winning a title.
But few sports fans nationwide would attend a game that NFL commissioner Bert Bell later called “the biggest … I’ve ever seen.” The 1950 Championship, contested in front of 29,751 trembling fans at Cleveland’s 81,000-seat Municipal Stadium, was not televised nationally. The game has been blocked in Cleveland and Los Angeles and is only available on radio in each city. The 1951 NFL title game, also between the Rams and the Browns, would become the first to be broadcast on television from coast to coast.
Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams show off formidable offenses
Co-founded by Paul Brown, the Cleveland Browns were the ground zero for football reshaping innovations. Game film, game manuals and full-time assistant coaches were among the legendary head coach’s many contributions to professional football. His Browns were 47-4-3 in the ACAF, but skepticism surfaced regarding the team’s prospects in the NFL.
“The worst team in our league could beat the best team in theirs,” Washington owner George Preston Marshall said of the AAFC in 1949.
Eager to expose the Browns as a fraudulent dynasty, the NFL pitted them against the Philadelphia Eagles in a highly anticipated free-standing game on Saturday night to start the 1950 season. In 1949, the reigning NFL champions ruled out the Rams of Los Angeles to win the NFL title.
“[The NFL] wanted to sort of pump their chest up at the start of this season, ”says Jon Kendle, director of football archives and information for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “They wanted to show that the Browns might be King of the Hill at that other conference, but the National Football League is a different ball game.”
On September 16, 1950, however, the Browns beat the Eagles, 35-10, turning the Philadelphia “World Series of Professional Football” into a scene for Brown’s advanced passing game. Browns quarterback Otto Graham threw for 346 yards, nearly tripling the Eagles’ total distance (118). This upset Eagles coach Greasy Neale, who later said Brown would make “a better basketball coach because all he does is put the ball in the air.”
Three months later, the Browns beat the Eagles, 13-7, without completing a pass.
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As Brown deployed a quick pass attack, the Rams assembled a remarkable scoring machine. More dependent on deep passes than Cleveland, Los Angeles averaged 38.8 points per game – a record that still stands – and 38 assists per game, far ahead of Cleveland’s 22. Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Tom Fears led the NFL with 84 receptions; no other pass catcher has eclipsed 54 this season.
The Browns employed NFL leader fullback Marion Motley, but the season-ending game showcased an array of passing skills. The Rams, who were 9-3 in the regular season, and the Browns (10-2) each had two Hall of Fame-related receivers: Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch for Los Angeles; Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie for Cleveland — and Three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Graham and the Rams’ two-QB setup of Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin).
The teams also had five black players each, including Hall of Famers Motley and goaltender Bill Willis (Cleveland) – a representation that eclipsed the other 11 NFL teams at the time.
The Browns are the three-point favorites in the 1950 Championship game
In the championship game, the Browns – three-point favorites, in part because of the freezing weather – and the Rams set a playoff record for combined pass attempts (65). Waterfield’s 82-yard opening touchdown pass to Glenn Davis set another league record.
But a comeback in the fourth quarter was the lasting legacy of the game on the pitch. Because the Browns missed a try with an extra run in the second quarter, the Rams had a 28-20 advantage in the fourth. The two-point deficit put Brown’s team to a decisive test.
Graham orchestrated two scoring shots on frozen ground, shooting side passes halfway through, including a 14-yard touchdown to Rex Bumgardner to reduce the Rams’ lead to 28-27. After a Rams punt, Graham devised a 64-yard drive that felt like a modern two-minute drill. That gave Lou Groza the go-ahead, a 16-yard field goal that gave Cleveland a 30-28 lead with 20 seconds left.
Rams first-year head coach Joe Stydahar called Van Brocklin off the bench for a final push. “The Dutchman” had broken a rib in the Rams’ playoff win over the Bears, but told his coach he had a hitting or two in him.
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Attempting what amounted to a Hail Mary from the Rams’ 47-yard line, Van Brocklin passed Davis on a pass that sailed into the arms of Browns defensive back Warren Lahr. Davis escorted Lahr out of Cleveland’s end zone from the 10-yard line, creating one of the strangest endings in playoff history.
“The guys were holding their breath. They didn’t know if [officials] were going to decide it was an interception and touchback or security, ”Kendle said. “… There was no instant replay at the time; they weren’t going to the booth to find out New York’s position on the play.
Graham said decades later officials could have declared the game as a safety, which would have tied the score at 30 and forced the very first overtime in an NFL game. But officials determined Lahr’s momentum brought him into the end zone for a touchback.
Both teams were praised for their play. “In Los Angeles we have probably the best staff a professional club has ever known,” said Bell, the NFL commissioner. “But with the Cleveland Browns, we have probably the most trained team in history.”
Lack of audience limits 1950 NFL Title Game Historically
After Cleveland’s victory, a New York sports journalist called the game “the most open, pass-filling and bloodiest professional football championship in history.” Brown said there “probably never will be” a game like this.
In 1958, however, a nationally televised championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts was dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The media in 2019 voted this game, won by the Colts with a dramatic final workout led by Johnny Unitas, as the best in the NFL. The 1950 Rams-Browns Championship game was relegated to 32nd place.
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“I think the 1950 game, if it had been on national TV, maybe they would have written the same things about that game,” Kendle said of a game that featured four touchdown passes. more than 25 meters. “Just because it was a similar, exciting type of game and there was probably even more fireworks in that game than the 1958 league game.”
The Rams and Browns met for the championship in 1951 and 1955, with Los Angeles winning the rematch and Cleveland winning the third game, both in Los Angeles. But the 1950 game had a lasting impact on the participants.
In the Rams’ locker room afterward, Waterfield stared into space as Fears, sprawled on a bench, kicked the ground. Meanwhile, the Browns offered a pre-Christmas prayer and celebrated an epic victory.
“Have you ever seen one as sturdy as this?” Brown said.