Flashback Friday: 1950, the year the Browns stunned the Eagles

Browns, Otto Graham . Mandatory Credit: Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports
Browns, Otto Graham . Mandatory Credit: Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports /

1950 was the year the Browns whipped up on the NFL champion Eagles so bad that they ended the career of coach Greasy Neale, who couldn’t figure out what hit him. 

1950 marked the year that the Cleveland Browns entered the NFL after spending four years in the rival All-American Football Conference (AAFC), and their first game would be in Philadelphia against the Eagles, the defending NFL champions. Almost all the sportswriters outside of Ohio were expecting the establishment Eagles to slaughter the upstart Browns.

For the benefit of younger fans, the AAFC was set up by a group of very wealthy owners who thought they could overtake the NFL by outspending the established league and signing all the best players out of college. They really did get most of the best players for a few years, but didn’t generate higher attendance than the established NFL and so they simply lost their money. Duh.

After four years of red ink, the Browns and 49ers were allowed to join the NFL as well as a Baltimore Colts team which would soon fold (i.e., not the same Baltimore Colts team that had Don Shula, Johnny Unitas, Bubba Smith, and all those dudes).

There were no Super Bowls in those days. The closest thing to it was game one of the 1950 season between the reigning AAFC Champion Browns coached by Paul Brown and the NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles, coached by Greasy Neale. Who ever heard of a football coach called Greasy?

He obtained his nickname from working as a “grease boy” in a steel rolling mill in West Virginia, so we won’t begrudge him for his unsavory nickname. Still, coach Neale went out of his way to insult Cleveland, insisting that Browns coach Paul Brown should have been a basketball coach because the Browns passed too much.

Those good old Eagles got the game off to a 3-0 start. Then the Browns got lucky with a cheap touchdown pass to halfback Dub Jones which covered 59 yards for a touchdown and they took a 7-3 lead. Real men would have run for a touchdown, not passed, you see. Darn those Browns. So that didn’t really count, in the minds of many. These are the same guys who think home runs are vulgar in baseball, by the way. Bunt those runners into scoring position.

The gimmicky Browns did again on the next possession, with a 26-yard pass from Otto Graham to Dante “Gluefingers” Lavelli. Gosh, you would think there should be a rule against throwing forward passes to wide receivers for such cheap touchdowns.

The Browns scored their third unanswered touchdown on a 13-yard pass to the other end, Mac Speedie. On the next possession, the Browns scored on the ground with alternating carries between Dub Jones and Motley, with Graham taking it in from the one, making it 28-3. So how about that Eagles fans?  Does that one count?

At this point, coach Neale abandoned their famous T-formation and replaced Tommy Thompson with Bill Mackrides, and finally mounted an offensive drive that resulted in a cowardly touchdown pass (well, they were behind, okay? Quit making fun!) to Pete Pihos to pull within 28-10.

However, the Browns responded with another touchdown on the ground. When it was all over, it was 35-10 and it was not nearly as close as the final score indicated.

You may not believe what a big game it was if a writer from Dawg Pound Daily describes it for you, so let’s rely on the Sports Illustrated account written at the time. :

"“The Cleveland Nobodies, four-time champions of the laughed-at All-America Football Conference, roasted, braised and fricasseed the big, bad, two-time defending NFL champion Eagles in a game that needed to be a lot closer just to get filed as a blowout. Playing in their first-ever NFL game, the Browns outscouted, outcoached, outran, outblocked, outpassed and out-and-out humiliated the Eagles from just past the national anthem until just after the last shower trickle was turned off.” — Rick Reilly, writing in Sports Illustrated, September 16, 1950"

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Basketball player Graham, (a member of the 1945-1946 World Champion Rochester Royals in the National Basket League, by the way) threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns. By comparison, the Eagles Championship team of 1949 had averaged 152 yards per game through the air. The Browns defense allowed only 118 passing yards that first game and came away with three picks.

The air-traffic controller summarized the situation rather well as the Browns’ flight taxied on the runway in Philadelphia for the return flight to Cleveland. “You’re clear for takeoff,” he intoned to the pilot. “Get those GD Browns out of Philadelphia!

So of course after the game, Greasy whined and whined about all the passing, and that struck a nerve with coach Brown.

Funny thing, in 2022, this writer has tried to make a point that if the defense plays great and the offense gets enough yards on the ground, maybe the quarterback doesn’t have to throw for a pile of yards to the wide receivers each Sunday. This theory has been met with a relentless chorus of boos. Winning low-scoring games is referred to as “winning ugly” these days, and it really doesn’t please the fans unless the Browns have a franchise quarterback hurling lightning bolts every Sunday.

But in 1950, it was the other way around. Passing touchdowns were considered “cheap touchdowns.” They were just not considered to be real football.

Stung by the criticism that the Browns were scoring cheap touchdowns, the normally stoic Brown decided to go the entire return match on game 11 without passing. So they beat the Eagles and the Greasemeister without a single forward pass, thereby proving they could win without superstar Graham’s passing.

The defense was heroic, returning an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter, and picking off Philly quarterback Tommy Thompson a second time while adding two fumble recoveries to give Cleveland a 13-7 victory.

After this and several other frustrating losses, the former world champion Eagles finished a mediocre 6-6, despite having the best defense in the NFL in terms of points allowed with only 11.8 points per game Greasy Neale was fired. It was the last season he ever coached in the NFL.

Overall, Greasy had a decent career, made all the more interesting because he played in Major League Baseball, including a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds. As a college coach, he had taken little Washington and Jefferson College to the Rose Bowl, where they tied the University of California at Berkeley, 0-0.

Years later, however, the greasy old coach did not seem to realize how badly he had been humiliated by the Browns. Instead, he bragged about how great his defense was as if they had skillfully held Graham to zero completions:

"“Motley gains 15 yards, Graham doesn’t complete a pass. And they beat me on an intercepted pass that they scored on and two fumbles where Groza kicked field goals… They made two first downs – and I’ll bet it’s the only game Graham ever played in which he didn’t complete a pass!” — Greasy Neale, quoted by Gerald Holland in Sports Illustrated, August 24, 1964."

How can you humiliate a guy if he’s too dumb to realize that he was being humiliated?

The Holland article indeed makes Neale seem like the smartest, wisest, and most philosophical football coach in NFL history. Plus he was the mentor for Allie Sherman who at the time was the respected football coach of the New York Giants and was also very well connected and liked by the east coast media.

Neale wound up being elected to the NFL Hall of Fame. How? Why?

Okay, give Neale some credit, he won two NFL Championships in a 10-team league. But does anyone seriously believe the Eagles were better than Cleveland in those years? What was it about the 25-point loss that impressed you guys so much? Or was it holding Graham to zero completions in the rematch?

This Sunday, it is only a preseason game and is going to be about making the rosters of the respective teams and nobody will be thinking about Greasy, Chuck Bednarik, Tommy Thompson, and Steve Van Buren on the Philly side, or Paul Brown, Bill Willis, Lou Groza, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli or Automatic Otto on the Cleveland side.

Nevertheless, with us older fans, if you just mention the name “Philadelphia Eagles,” it gets the blood flowing, with an odd combination of adrenaline and venom flowing through our veins.

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Frankly, it’s galling that coach Neale wound up in the Hall of Fame after his team got annihilated six ways from sundown by your Cleveland Browns. For that reason alone, I hope the Browns kick some Eagles butts.