- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

Considering Otto Graham led the Cleveland Browns to league championship games in each of his 10 pro football seasons, he must have found it hard before his death last month to pick his greatest “thrill.” But it’s unlikely any of those showdowns topped a rousing, rollicking victory on Sept.16, 1950, at Philadelphia’s Municipal (later JFK) Stadium.

The Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” were headed toward their first pennant in 35 seasons, and Connie Mack was two weeks away from the end of his 50-year reign as manager of the Athletics. Yet for many fans in the cheesesteak capital of the world, the Eagles were the only team that mattered.

With 71,237 spectators licking their chops, the two-time NFL champions prepared to demonstrate in their season opener that the Browns, four-time champs of the now-defunct All-America Football Conference, were way over their heads. It would be ugly, but the three teams added to the NFL from the AAFC — Browns, Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers — had to be taught a lesson.

Indeed, a lesson was administered that Saturday night — but not the one anticipated by the NFL and its fans.

Final score: Browns 35, Eagles 10.

Writing about the game a half-century later, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly described the result this way: “Rivers flow uphill. The sun sets in the East. Dogs love cats. It all makes sense after what happened.”

The game remained the NFL’s biggest surprise for 19 years, or until Joe Namath’s New York Jets ambushed the heavily favored Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III. The Jets, playing in the American Football League, were another team scorned and ridiculed by the NFL establishment. Arrogance, anyone?

The 1950 Eagles — led by star running back Steve Van Buren, quarterback Tommy Thompson, receiver Pete Pihos and linebacker Chuck Bednarik — were no slouches; during the summer, coach Earle “Greasy” Neale inquired rhetorically, “Who is there to beat us?” Yet that opening walloping by the Browns so discombobulated this fine team that its record slipped from 11-1 in 1949 to 6-6, causing management to grease the skids for Greasy.

The Browns went 10-2 that season, losing only to the New York Giants twice, and then won the NFL title by beating the Los Angeles Rams 30-28 on Christmas Eve. Not until 1956, after Graham retired, would another team represent the old Eastern Division in the championship game.

Nearly two decades later, Neale conceded in an interview what everybody already knew: The Eagles had taken the Browns too lightly.

“They beat us with passes, Otto Graham to [halfback] Dub Jones,” he recalled. “I knew within 10 minutes after the game started that we couldn’t stop them.”

Those Browns had stars at nearly every position. In addition to Graham, kicker Lou “the Toe” Groza, bruising fullback Marion Motley, receiver Dante Lavelli, center Frank Gatski, defensive linemen Bill Willis and Len Ford — plus coach Paul Brown — are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In four AAFC seasons, Cleveland went 47-4-3. And before their NFL debut, Brown did a pretty good job of pumping up his troops.

During the AAFC’s brief existence, NFL executives bad-mouthed it nonstop. “The worst team in our league could beat the best team in theirs,” said George Preston Marshall, the Washington Redskins’ hyperbolic owner. NFL commissioner Elmer Layden, asked at the new league’s formation what he thought of its prospects, replied, “What league? Let them get a ball first.”

Fittingly enough, at their first opportunity to zip NFL lips, the Browns had a ball.

“For four years, Coach Brown never said a word — he just kept putting that stuff on the bulletin board,” Graham said. “We were so fired up, we would have played them anywhere anytime, for a keg of beer or a chocolate milkshake. It didn’t matter.”

While assembling his team in the mid-‘40s, Brown was farsighted enough to sign Motley and Willis, two of the first black players in modern pro football. Willis was a superb defensive tackle who would “leap right over you to stop runners,” an opposing center said. And Motley, virtually a human tank at fullback, helped Cleveland control the ball on offense by running over anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way.

That made it easy for Graham, wearing No.60 in those days before the NFL standardized its numbering system by positions, to find talented receivers like Jones, Lavelli and Mac Speedie. Against the Eagles, Otto passed for a whopping 346 yards and three touchdowns while the Browns’ defense allowed just 118 yards overall.

Oddly, the Eagles took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, but that lasted only as long as it took Graham to crank up his arm. The Browns’ aerial game was much more sophisticated than those of most NFL teams, and Otto started by completing several short passes to Jones on out patterns. Then in the huddle, Jones told Graham, “He’s ready for it.” When the linebacker covering him cheated toward the line, Dub shot past him to snatch a pass on a 59-yard touchdown for a 7-3 lead.

The Eagles didn’t give up, marching to a first down at the Cleveland 6. Somewhat surreptitiously, Brown sent in fullback Motley at linebacker. The 232-pound giant (by standards of the day) smothered four straight running plays, and the Eagles could have slunk home right there.

Graham’s subsequent touchdown passes of 26 yards to Lavelli and 12 to Speedie made it 21-3 and pretty much settled the issue. Just to rub it in a bit, Otto added a touchdown on a 1-yard run and Jones sprinted 57 for another to complete the carnage.

“It was no upset,” Eagles tackle Bucko Kilroy said afterward. “Man for man, they were just a better team.”

As the usually dour Brown accepted congratulations, he sported a rare smile. “I think today we were the best football team I’ve ever seen,” he said, and there weren’t many arguments. Even native Philadelphian Bert Bell, who had succeeded Layden as NFL commissioner, had to agree.

Neale wasn’t as gracious, saying, “Brown would have made a better basketball coach because all they do is put the ball in the air.”

The Browns’ coach did not appreciate the criticism. When the teams met in Cleveland 11 weeks later, he beat Neale 13-7 without completing a pass. Graham did toss one to Lavelli, but it was nullified by a penalty. The Browns won that one with an interception return for a touchdown and two field goals by Groza following fumble recoveries.

By then, it was obvious to everybody the Browns belonged in the NFL. After their season-opening victory, however, it took awhile for the shock to wear off. But soon nearly everybody in Philadelphia felt the pain.

While the Browns waited on the runway for their plane to take them home, an air traffic controller’s voice rasped harshly in the pilot’s ears. “You’re clear for takeoff,” it snarled. “Get those [deleted] Browns out of town.”

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