- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2007

Sammy Baugh, the greatest Redskins player of them all, faded into his end zone to pass in the first quarter and spotted end Wayne Millner open at the 10-yard-line. So Slingin’ Sam slung, but the ball struck the goal post — then on the goal line — for an automatic safety. Cleveland Rams 2, Washington Redskins 0.

Big deal, everybody must have said. With more than three quarters left, the Eastern Division champion Redskins had plenty of time to recover, but they never did. That play and two other freak occurrences resulted in a 15-14 victory for the Rams in the NFL championship game at Cleveland’s frigid Municipal Stadium on Dec. 16, 1945.

And truly that was the end of an era for the Redskins. In their first nine seasons in the nation’s capital, the team had a 67-24-5 regular-season record, won two titles and reached the championship game three other times. But now the Redskins would plummet toward the league’s depths and stay there.

From 1946 through 1970, Washington went 119-185-15 and savored exactly four winning seasons. Not until the arrival of George Allen and his Over the Hill Gang in 1971 would the Redskins appear in a playoff game. Not until the following season would they win one.

Many factors contributed to the decline — principally the tight-fisted and prejudiced ownership of George Preston Marshall, a bully who fired coaches recklessly and would not employ a black player until 16 years after the NFL was first integrated in 1946. Yet those who believe in omens could have spotted at least three ominous signs on a day in Cleveland when winds off Lake Erie dropped the temperature to near zero and turned the field to a sheet of ice.

The first, of course, was Baugh’s errant pass that resulted in a safety under a bizarre rule that was changed before the next season. The second was a partially blocked extra point kick late in the second quarter by Cleveland quarterback Bob Waterfield that hit the crossbar … and then rolled weakly over.

And the third was a surreal agreement between coaches Dudley DeGroot of the Redskins and Adam Walsh of the Rams that neither team would try to combat the conditions by wearing sneakers rather than cleats. This wiped out a decided advantage for the Redskins because they had soft-soled shoes available while the Rams didn’t.

At halftime, with the Rams leading 9-7, Marshall stormed into the Redskins‘ locker room and bellowed, “Where are the sneakers? I thought we had sneakers!”

Replied DeGroot: “We do, but Walsh asked me not to use them, and I agreed.”

Marshall’s always volatile temper must have reached a record high as he yowled, “You had no right!” According to some accounts, he fired DeGroot on the spot. At any rate, by the next season, the coach was directing the Los Angeles Dons in the new All-America Football Conference.

Superstar Baugh couldn’t hold up his end of what had been billed as a duel against Waterfield, who was the league’s Rookie of the Year and MVP that season. Soon after his misdirected pass, the dead-eyed Texan suffered bruised ribs than turned him into just another well-chilled spectator for the rest of the afternoon. Backup Frank Filchock filled in admirably, tossing touchdown passes to Steve Bagarus and Bob Seymour, but this obviously was not the Redskins‘ day.

Nonetheless, they could have won had Joe Aguirre not missed two field goal attempts in the final six minutes. The second was a 46-yard attempt with 2:10 remaining, and when it fell short the Redskins were all done as a feared team. The following season, they finished 5-5-1 under former popular player and assistant coach Turk Edwards as their interminable slide began.

The Rams also took a big trip, moving to Los Angeles three weeks after the season ended and becoming the first major professional team on the West Coast because, owner Dan Reeves said, they had lost $40,000 in 1945 despite a 10-1 record.

In Los Angeles, the Rams soon became bigger stars than they had ever been in Cleveland, especially after Waterfield married movie sexpot Jane Russell. With other superb players like Norm Van Brocklin, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch and Deacon Dan Towler joining Waterfield, the team narrowly lost the NFL title in 1950 and won it in 1951.

Their opponent both times was Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns, who won a league or division championship in each of their first 10 seasons in the AAFC and the NFL. So fans in both cities had much to cheer following that 1945 title game, while the Redskins stunk up the joint year after sorry year. Ah, cruel fate!