Game 1: AAFC Championship, Browns versus New York Yankees, 1946
The first AAFC Championship game was played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on December 22, 1946. The Browns steamrolled through the regular season with a 12-2 record to finish first in the Western Division.
Their opponent was the New York Yankees (okay, not the most original team name, but apparently it was legal, and you have to admit it carried some name recognition) who had gone 10-3-1, and in fact had gotten hot at the end of the year. At that time coach Paul Brown was using the more modern T formation, whereas the Yankees were playing the single wing, which we know today as the Wildcat, with three backs lined up diagonally from the center, allowing the center to hike the ball to any of the three, usually the halfback or fullback with the quarterback as the blocking back.
The championship game was a defensive struggle. The Browns moved the ball well, but had trouble scoring. One factor was that the usually reliable Lou Groza had a sprained ankle and was not able to connect on field goals.
Here is the account of William D. Richardson, writing for the New York Times, of the winning touchdown:
"“With the ball on the Yankee 16, Graham, whose throwing had the Yankees baffled most of the day, fired to Dante Lavelli, Cleveland’s ace receiver, who had outrun both Jack Russell, end, and Spec Sanders, Yankees fullback. Grabbing the ball only a few steps away from the goal-line, Lavelli sprinted across for the winning points.” — Richardson, NY Times"
Spec Sanders is better known as a triple threat on offense, but in those days players often played both ways even though they were not required to by rule. As a further reminder, the play that sealed the game for the Browns was a late interception by the Yankees Ace Parker. You may have heard of the defensive back who made the interception, for he was none other than Automatic Otto Graham.
The game should not have been as close as it was. The Browns had massive edges in rushing yards (112-65) and passing yards (213-81). Had Groza been able to convert a few field goals, the score would not have been nearly as close.
Check out also the video showing Groza using tape to help him guide the ball during field goal attempts. Nobody ever quite understood what the benefit was, but Groza always did it. Probably it was just a reminder to keep his head down. Eventually, the NFL would get around to banning this strange practice, and Groza was still his usual Hall of Fame self, tape or not tape.
Sharp-eyed fans will recognize that the photos for this story actually come from the 1950s. I know better than to try to slide anything past you, but due to copyright issues, DPD does not have access to pre-1950 photos of the Browns. Remarkably, the core group of athletes stayed together for an entire decade of Browns football, in which they were so dominant that they made it to the championship game ten times in ten years, and won seven of them.
Youtube has a highlight reel for the entire season, including the first championship against the Yankees which you may enjoy as much for its historical introduction of the Browns as the games. The link is found here: