Flashback Friday: 1950 NFL Championship, Cleveland Browns vs. former Cleveland Rams

American actor Ava Gardner (1922 - 1990) and her husband American singer and actor Frank Sinatra (1915 - 1998) chat with Cleveland Browns football player Otto Graham during a party for Sinatra's film, 'Meet Danny Wilson,' Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California, 1952. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American actor Ava Gardner (1922 - 1990) and her husband American singer and actor Frank Sinatra (1915 - 1998) chat with Cleveland Browns football player Otto Graham during a party for Sinatra's film, 'Meet Danny Wilson,' Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California, 1952. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) /

The NFL Championship of 1950 pitted the Cleveland Browns versus the hated former Cleveland Rams who had left Cleveland five years earlier for Los Angeles.

The NFL Championship game of 1950 pitted the Cleveland Browns in their inaugural season versus the hated Rams. Nowadays, the Rams are not really much of a rival, just a team that the Browns play every few years.

But in 1950 the Rams were hated every bit as much as modern Browns fans have it in for the Baltimore Ravens. The Rams, you see, were originally the Cleveland Rams, and they won a World Championship in 1945 and then fled Cleveland for Los Angeles, which offered the huge Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with an unheard-of capacity of over 100,000 seats.

That allowed the Cleveland Browns to form in the upstart All-America Football Conference (AAFC) which existed only four years, from 1946 to 1950. The Browns simply dominated the AAFC, winning all four championships.

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In 1950 the two leagues merged, and the Browns, in their first season in the NFL,  \found themselves champions of the American Conference of the NFL, with the hated Rams in the National Conference.

Today’s memories of the Browns are usually that they were offensive innovators with brilliant coach Paul Brown, and an offense led by five Hall of Famers: quarterback Otto Graham, split end Dante Lavelli, fullback Marion Motley, and offensive linemen Frank Gatski and Lou Groza, who was also a premier placekicker. For good measure, the Browns also had split end Mac Speedie and guard Weldon Humble make the Pro Bowl that year.

Can we agree that if your offense has five Hall of Famers and two other guys in the Pro Bowl, your team should score some points? And score they did, leading the American Conference in points with 310.

But what has been largely forgotten is that the  National Conference was kind of like today’s Big 12 Conference. The Rams made statisticians’ eyes glaze over by putting up 466 points or in other words an average of 38.8 points per game, which is still the NFL record. Moreover, they threw for an average of 309 yards per game, which was the NFL record until 1984 when the Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino broke it.

So, if you thought 1950 was the dead-ball era, with three yards and a cloud of dust, it was not that way at all. Bob Waterfield had been the Rams quarterback in Cleveland and continued his winning ways in Los Angeles though by 1950 they had a two-quarterback system with Waterfield sharing signal calling duties with Norm Van Brocklin.

Both quarterbacks wound up in the Hall of Fame. Their primary targets were Tom Fears, who amassed 1116 receiving yards,  and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch who added another 687. They also had US Army Lieutenant Glenn “Mr. Outside” Davis, who had completed his tour of duty and became a rookie running back at age 26, four years after winning the Heisman Trophy. In his rookie year, he went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage including 592 receiving yards. That was a crazy total in those days.

How could the Browns compete against that kind of talent?  Well, the Browns were not completely helpless on defense, featuring two Hall of Famers on defense in Len Ford and Bill Willis. The Browns gave up only 144 points per game, less than half of the Rams’ 309.

The game was played in Cleveland Municipal Stadium with a game-time temperature of 25 degrees and a strong wind blowing in from the north. There was no snow, but other than that the weather conditions were perfect for Cleveland football.

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Things did not start well for the Browns, with an 82-yard touchdown bomb from Waterfield to Glenn Davis on the first play from scrimmage. But the Browns retaliated with a 70-yard drive in six plays, capped by a touchdown pass from Graham to Dub Jones.

The fireworks continued with the Rams putting an 80-yard drive together, which included a 44-yard pass to Fears and finished with a three-yard run by fullback Dick Hoerner.

But the Browns came back again with yet another drive and scoring strike from Otto to Dante Lavelli. However, a bad snap prevented them from tying the game, and the Rams led 14-13.

The rest of the quarter featured another drive by the Rams, but it ended prematurely with an interception by Ken Gorgal near the goal-line.  Yet another drive ended with a field goal miss by Waterfield.

In the second half, the Browns took the lead on a 39-yard strike from Graham to Lavelli again.  But the Rams came back, capping off the drive with seven straight carries by Hoerner, including a fourth and goal from the one-yard line that allowed the Rams to retake the lead, 21-20.

Then the wheels seemed to come off. Usually reliable Marion Motley fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, and Rams defensive end Larry Brink scooped it up and lumbered in for a touchdown.

The Rams held an eight-point lead going into the fourth quarter,  but Waterfield threw another interception.  On the ensuing possession, the Graham connected with a diving Rex Bumgardner, to pull within one point (remember that bad snap?).

On the next possession, the Browns were driving again with under three minutes to go, when Graham fumbled!  All the Rams had to do was run out the clock. But instead, they went conservative with three straight runs, including a third and ten, and failed to make a first down. Waterfield, who was the team’s punter in addition to field goal kicker, punted the ball away giving the Browns one more shot with under two minutes left.

Graham put together a masterful drive —  a scramble for a first down, followed by short passes to Bumgardner and Dub Jones. With 28 seconds left, they called upon the Pride of Berea, Lou “The Toe” Groza, who split the uprights, giving the Browns a 30–28 win.

Waterfield was both the hero and the goat.  Waterfield’s 82-yard TD pass to Davis was then the longest in NFL Championship history. Moreover, Los Angeles had 407 total yards to Cleveland’s 373, But the Rams also threw five interceptions, four by Waterfield, and one by Van Brocklin.

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After the game, NFL commissioner Bert Bell, who had worked patiently for years to bring the merger about, rightfully called Cleveland “the greatest team ever to play football”.